At first the scenes between the management and the workers are quite funny. This is true of an early scene in which the manager reads out the mission statement of the new company. The full weight of the absurdity of the text comes out as he reads, with a straight face, the line " deaths have got to be kept to an acceptable level" and one of the workers pipes back with the response "any volunteers?" Very early on Loach makes the point that the new management may be in sink with the world of share holders, but is totally out to lunch when it comes to the reality of working on the rails. Another memorable scene shows the workers at the screening of the company video. The catch words like "progress", "change" and a "partnership for progress" which pepper this slick video would be offensive, if they were not so silly. But soon enough the more insipid and threatening reality behind the absurd rhetoric becomes apparent and unstoppable.
Like the workers the audience is the last to know about the new changes. And often they get announced in passing, as the workers are being merry in their lunch hour. The constant camaraderie, which characterizes their relations, is the source of many laughs and much insight into who they are. As companies are competing for the work on the same sites the workers divide up the tasks and cooperate. It seems for most of the film that the workers will stick together. But this camaraderie also has its limits. Increasingly the workers are caught having to be as dishonest as the companies that they are working for if they want to keep their jobs, but in their case dishonesty has tragic consequences. It is impossible not to feel a bit dirty at the end of this film.
Navigators is an aggressive condemnation of the privatization of the rails. But it is a gentle polemic. All the changes are seen as they affect the workers, on the scale of a group of six or seven men from the ages of thirty to fifty-five. This scale enables Loach to strike a balance between giving a broader view of the workers and yet defining the personality and to a certain extent, the circumstance of each one. We see the mates having lunch together, playing practical jokes on one another, making love to their wives and playing with their children. The film never strays from the problems that arise with each new change and the scenes always show both the characters and the physical background. Loach has resisted the temptation of pathos inspiring scenes of empty rail yards or sweeping industrial landscapes and thankfully he has also steered clear of close up shots of sad faces and crying children. Instead each second of the film is either relevant to the plot of each episode or necessary to the characterization of the workers lives. This approach is made all the more convincing by the acting, which is very natural and familiar even to those for whom these people are foreign in every way. These everyday scenes are never banal or squalid; some are even heightened to the level of poetry by a judicious use of music. Perhaps the most striking example is the image of one worker skating in a public rink with his daughters to the tune of a beautiful waltz.
An important sub-theme to the film is the relationship between these working men and their families. Loach has a lot of sympathy for those men on whom their entire familys livelihood rests, be they still married or separated from their wives. Absent though is the domestic abuse and the onslaught of swearing and fighting that often fills the scenes of films on the working class. Maybe Loach is presenting too idealized a view of the English working man, but it is never saccharine or even improbable thanks to a great script by the late Rob Dover. Instead it seems that Loach is presenting a certain part of todays reality, one not often seen at a time when the lines between advertising and reporting are so blurred. The film as a whole is like an answer - and a prophetic one to the ongoing debate that is taking place all around us about our priorities and our ways of doing business. Navigators is a work of art but it is also an argument brilliantly pieced together. Anyone who sees this film will never look at a company brochure in the same way again.
Directed by Ken Loach
Producer Rebecca O'brien
Writer Rob Dawber
Premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, though unknown whether it will reach th UK