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‘Riff-Raff’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 16, 1993

It's not every day you find an English-language movie with English subtitles. But in "Riff-Raff," you'll need all the prompting you can get. Ken Loach's gem of a film, about working stiffs in Thatcherian England, has dialects and expressions to confound -- and delight -- everyone.

As the movie's disparate band of workers sweat, swear and joke together on a London construction site, you'll hear Scouse and Cockney, Glaswegian and African, among other accents. But if these salty tongues are divided by a common language, their universal song of worker misery comes through loud and clear.

Director Loach raises the emotional stakes between employer and employee, between have and have-not, between extortionist and victim, between man and woman, working man and artist, and makes these clashes look freshly waged. It's as if you're discovering class and gender struggle for the first time.

Scottish ex-convict Stevie (Robert Carlyle) has just joined a group of construction workers who are converting a rundown hospital into condos for the elite. The workers, including Larry (Ricky Tomlinson), Mo (George Moss) and Shem (Jimmy Coleman) -- but no Curly -- have come from everywhere to eke out a living.

Unable to afford taxes, they receive their checks under false names. And in a country of 3.5 million unemployed (2,500 of them building workers), they're helplessly at the beck and call of cantankerous, almost Dickensian foremen.

After his new workmates find him a squatter's apartment, Stevie's situation is as stable as it gets. After discovering and returning a lost handbag, Stevie falls in love with its owner, wacky Irish singer Susan (Emer McCourt). She can't carry a tune but she's fiercely ambitious. She hates loneliness but she can't handle commitment. Naturally, she moves in with him.

Stevie's romantic ups and downs with Susan are punctuated regularly with episodes at work, and a trip to Glasgow after receiving word of his mother's death.

At the construction site, Stevie learns firsthand what it is not to have a union in an abusive and unsafe working atmosphere. Larry, a Merseyside leftie, carries the torch for his comrades -- and pays accordingly. So does Shem, who makes the mistake of head-butting his foreman. Meanwhile, Stevie discovers things about Susan that threaten to ruin everything between them.

Did I mention this is also a comedy? Loach, a veteran known in England for searing, socialist-leaning film and television work (particularly "Kes"), fills "Riff-Raff" with post-Marxist irony and humanist punchlines. It's as if Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and Bill Forsyth decided to go into pictures together.

The result, scripted by former laborer Bill Jesse (who died before the film was completed), is one of the most compelling movies of the year.

The cast, which was selected from actors with construction experience, feels like a crew. These workers yabber, haul and cajole with a realism that agent-negotiated Hollywood casting could never produce. In fact, Tomlinson, who gives a sensational performance, is well known in Britain as a member of the Shrewsbury Three, a collection of union workers who went to jail following Britain's 1972 building strike.

"Riff-Raff" has its rare shortcomings -- most notably the melodramatic spats between Stevie and Susan (her failing, not his). But it's constantly engrossing, a fascinating hybrid of charm, despair and surprise. The cliche of race, for instance, is turned on its head. The upper-class set visiting the building's model apartment wears dark veils from the Orient -- not bowler hats and brollies. And it is a black worker who tries extorting his fellow workers when they ask him to cash their false-identification checks.

You know this isn't going to end with capitalist bosses and workers skipping hand-in-hand into the sunset, a magnificent, completed-on-time building behind them. But that doesn't stop the humor, or the occasional Capraesque moments. When Susan is booed off the stage for her flat singing, Liverpudlian Larry strides up to the microphone and renders a speech to the nasty yobbos in the audience that would have Jimmy Stewart crying. In the middle of this lower-class doom and gloom, it's an extraordinarily touching moment.

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