Maggie Conlan (Crissy Rock) is a single mother of four who struggles to find a man, or rather she struggles to find a man who will treat her with respect. Then, one night in a bar she is performing karaoke when a man in the crowd notices her: he is Jorge (Vladimir Vega), an asylum seeker from Paraguay and he was very touched by her way with a particularly sad song, so invites Maggie to have a drink with him. She is wary, but is persuaded by his gentle charm, and soon they are getting along famously, to the extent she is opening up about her troubled life which started with a father who abused her and beat her mother regularly, then went on to partners who would do the same to her once she had children.
Would Jorge be any different? Actually yes, he would be, but Maggie is so damaged it takes the course of the whole film, lasting over the period of a few years, before she is prepared to allow him to break down the barriers of terror and anger she has built up around herself. This Ken Loach directed work was based, we are told right from the off, on a true story, though after it was released Rona Munro's screenplay was questioned as to its accuracy and how much had been embellished to render it as emotionally fraught with tragedy as possible. It was an experience as furious as the perpetually hair-trigger tempered Maggie was, and for that reason it was far from an easy watch.
Nobody says a film about a single mother judged unfit by social services has to be a barrel of laughs, of course, and this assuredly was not, yet Loach's most accessible style where he would mix humour with the unpalatable truths he wished to convey had deserted him here, and the results were absolutely relentless in their abject misery. We see in flashback Maggie's problems with partner Simon (Ray Winstone warming up for Nil By Mouth) as he is as angry as she is, but takes it out on her by smashing her face in, all this in front of her four kids by two different fathers. When she moved into a refuge, she locked her children in their room and a fire broke out, with long-lasting consequences.
Thanks to one of those kids almost burning to death, Maggie finds her offspring regarded as at serious risk if they stay with her any longer, and to her horror they are taken away from her. Now, Loach was obviously wishing to evoke the heartbreaking scene in his first major effort Cathy Come Home where the title character's children have to be taken away from her on account of her not being able to provide for them, so imagine a movie that was basically that scene dragged out to one hour and forty minutes of drama and you would have some idea of what you were in for. It started out riveting, with stand-up comedian Rock delivering a raw performance drawn partly from her own experiences, but wound up completely exhausting; you may have initially sympathised, but it became clear this woman was a menace to her sons and daughters.
That was not the impression you were intended to take away from Ladybird Ladybird, as far as you could tell, but you felt sorry for the social workers having to deal with such a problematic individual and being painted as the bad guys for trying to rescue those kids from a woman who almost killed them, albeit through no deliberate fault of her own, and made them witness to harrowing domestic violence, which she really did have control over - we see she even went back to Simon believing he would assist her in keeping the children. The quiet Jorge's attraction to her remained baffling throughout. Obviously Loach was an anti-establishment figure and was wont to express his feelings about The Man taking control over ordinary people in no uncertain terms, yet once you started thinking he was on the wrong side this time, it was as difficult a sensation to shake as Maggie's dreadful circumstances were to witness. When halfway through she becomes pregnant again, your heart sinks, no matter what a nice guy Jorge is. A troubling film, yes, but not always in the way its creators intended. Music by George Fenton.
[The BFI have released three Ken Loach films in a Blu-ray box set. The other two to go with this are Riff-Raff and Raining Stones. Those special features in full:
Includes a newly remastered presentation of Ladybird Ladybird approved by the director
Ken Loach: The Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre with Derek Malcolm (1992, 71 mins)
Face to Face: Jeremy Isaccs talks to Ken Loach (Geraldine Dowd, 1991, 39 mins): the former Head of Channel Four discusses the filmmaker's life and career
Carry on Ken (Toby Reisz, 2006, 47 mins): an in-depth documentary appraising the director
Original trailers for all three films
Fully illustrated booklet with new writing by David Archibald, original reviews and full film credits.]