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Family Life (1971)


Main image of Family Life (1971)
35mm, colour, 108 mins
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompaniesKestrel Films
ProducerTony Garnett
ScreenplayDavid Mercer
PhotographyCharles Stewart
MusicMarc Wilkinson

Cast: Sandy Ratcliff (Janice Baildon); Bill Dean (Mr Baildon); Grace Cave (Mrs Baildon); Malcolm Tierney (Tim); Hilary Martyn (Barbara Baildon); Michael Riddall (Dr Donaldson)

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Janice is the rebellious daughter of lower-middle-class parents. Increasingly unable to cope with her behaviour, her parents seek help from a psychiatrist, and Janice is taken into residential care, 'for her own good'.

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Family Life marks Ken Loach's only cinematic collaboration with David Mercer, who also wrote Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) for Karel Reisz and Providence (1977) for Alain Resnais. Mercer took a fairly jaundiced view of the family, which he regarded as a breeding-ground for oppression, frustration and breakdown. In this, his views coincided with those of the Scots psychiatrist RD Laing, whose ideas were highly influential in the 1960s. Laing suggested that what society called 'mental dysfunction' or 'madness' was often the sole rational response to intolerable social pressures - inflicted, as often as not, by the family structure.

The story - adapted from Mercer's Wednesday Play 'In Two Minds' (BBC, tx. 1/3/1967; also directed by Loach) and shot in sober, quasi-documentary style - could be summed up by Philip Larkin's notorious opening of his 1971 poem 'This Be The Verse': "They f— you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do." Janice, the 19-year-old daughter of a lower-middle-class family, is ceaselessly berated and browbeaten by her parents while being assured that everything they do or say is "only for your own good". When she gets pregnant by her boyfriend - of whom, inevitably, her parents disapprove - they push her into having an abortion, then respond to her depression by taking her to a psychiatrist.

The first consultant she sees, Dr Donaldson, is open-minded and liberal, a follower of Laing and a believer in gentle group therapy. But when he's ousted by the hospital board - in a scene that finds Loach's satirical scalpel at its sharpest - Janice is transferred to a harsh regime of drugs and electro-convulsive therapy. In the film's final scene she's been reduced to a near-vegetable - passive, silent and unresponsive, exhibited to a smirking audience of medical students.

As Janice, Sandy Ratcliff is limited by the script to do little beyond reacting. Her parents, though, aren't shown as monsters; in their own way they're as much to be pitied as Janice, no less trapped by the conventions and assumptions of society. Her mother presents a figure of purse-lipped bourgeois rectitude, misguidedly sincere in pursuing what she sees as Janice's best interests; while her father, still conscious that his wife is a rung or two above him on the social scale, squirms uncomfortably when Donaldson quizzes him about their (evidently minimal) sex life. "She's a good woman," he mutters unhappily, "I can't complain."

Philip Kemp

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Video Clips
1. 'A bit distressed' (2:12)
2. Sexual relations (4:30)
3. A typical case history (1:47)
Original posters
Production stills
In Two Minds (1967)
Garnett, Tony (1936-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Mercer, David (1928-1980)
Thomas, Jeremy (1949-)
Ken Loach: Feature Films