[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]
By Michael Pattison
An hour into Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1990), itinerant worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle) returns from his day’s graft to find girlfriend Susie (Emer McCourt) has prepared for him a small birthday celebration. Entering the living room of the flat in which they squat, Stevie sees Susie standing in wait, party hat on, with a small candle-lit cake in one hand and a bottle of rosé in the other. Immediately overcome with emotion, he turns away and walks out of the room. Susie follows him: “I’m sorry, I never meant to upset you. What is it?” Stevie replies, without looking at her: “Nobody’s ever done that before.”
Stevie doesn’t look at her because he’s too embarrassed by joy – even by the small things in life that offer it. Stevie cowers from such emotion, unsure of how to communicate it, let alone respond to it. His slight frame remains in the hallway, and he looks down at his feet. Though he can neither muster the courage to return his girlfriend’s searching gaze nor find the words to match the moment, he yearns for Susie’s physical presence, and pulls her to him for a hug. For him, this is a new experience, and its inherent warmth simultaneously unsettles and reassures him.
Not much has been given to us in terms of Stevie’s backstory. We know that he has recently been released from prison and that he has travelled to London from his native Glasgow in search of work, and that he is presently employed as a casual labourer on a construction site. Like all of the film’s performances, Carlyle’s isn’t expressionistic or actorly. Filmed by Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd in medium and long shots, he is framed within surroundings by which he is forever conditioned and in which he may interact with others to form an instinctive solidarity against the ugly implications of said surroundings. Here, with heartbreaking economy, Carlyle demonstrates what it means to be the object of someone’s unconditional love at a time when you’re financially broke.
Here is a person whose brave face amidst daily toil is one that has been hardened by betrayal and mistrust. Abandoned, imprisoned, unemployed and unloved, Stevie seems humbled and humiliated by Susie’s generosity. Indeed, in a world where success and happiness are both measured in abstract terms—and in which the prevalent presumption is that men provide and women receive—the alienation experienced by someone like Stevie is both social and domestic. It takes great courage not to fold under such multifarious pressures. Stevie knows in this very same instant that an act of kindness from someone who loves him is a beautiful thing to be cherished. A similar scene occurs in Loach’s Raining Stones (1993), when the jobseeking Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) reluctantly accepts some cash handed to him from his shop-assistant daughter, only to break down after she leaves the room.
Susie, excellently played by McCourt, is also a human in need. In the shot that follows the one in the hallway, note the way she crouches beside Carlyle to allow him enough space to regain his composure, and the tact she demonstrates in looking away from him so that he can wipe the tears from his eyes without feeling too intruded upon. An artistic woman who wishes to be a singer, Susie is creative enough to challenge the poverty in which she and her boyfriend live. Stevie’s birthday card is handmade, and the present Susie has him unwrap is a single pair of flashy polka dot boxer shorts. It’s both a personal and light-hearted gesture.
As Carlyle opens his gift, his hands tremble with adrenaline – is it going to be something so thoughtfully sincere that he’ll break down once more? Anticipating the joke, McCourt’s eyes barely leave him, and her own nerves – how will he react? – cause her to laugh half a second before he does. To witness the pleasure she has brought to his world is itself a pleasure for Susie. To us, such modest attempts at happiness, in the face of an ongoing marginalisation, are small but revolutionary acts. Implying both togetherness and compassion at a time when neither is particularly valued by the official political order, such acts need indeed to be cherished.