Bob (Bruce Jones) lives a hand to mouth existence on this estate in Manchester, and if he cannot find work, more often than not cash-in-hand jobs lasting a day, then he has to improvise. As he does today when he and a friend, Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson), venture up to the countryside around the city and steal a sheep from the first flock they find. This is an impressive feat in itself, as the animal does not want to be caught, bundled into the back of Bob's van or driven to his back garden where he and Tommy consider their next move, both of them reluctant to get blood on their hands by killing it. Eventually they take it to the butcher who tells them they will get far less for its meat than they anticipated, mutton not a popular produce, but more bad luck will hit them very soon...
Another slice of life from director Ken Loach in one of his three collaborations with screenwriter Jim Allen, a former construction worker who had a flair for writing and channelled that into mostly television work - technically, though it was released in cinemas, Raining Stones was made for the small screen and there would be the most likely place it had been seen. After this, they made the Spanish Civil War movie Land and Freedom together, then Allen retired, but this was their finest work, though Loach did kick off what was a very successful nineteen-nineties with Allen's script for Northern Irish conspiracy film Hidden Agenda, but that is few people's favourite example of the director's oeuvre.
Loach was on firmer ground here, mixing his best combination of laughs and serious bits, though the chuckles were fewer in this, certainly as the plot moved towards its final act and Bob was hit with a moral dilemma. Before that, his dilemma was whether to shell out for his seven-year-old daughter's Communion dress, as he is a religious man in spite of all evidence that the presence of the Almighty has abandoned the world, if indeed He was ever there. He and his wife Anne (Julie Brown) cannot really afford this dress and its accoutrements, it's over a hundred quid and after the bills are paid this is not a cost he can justify, yet he feels in his bones it would be the right thing to attend to his daughter's needs this way.
Especially as it was acting as a tribute to God, leaving the viewer in an interesting position as no matter what your belief - or lack of it - you were asked to ponder if He moved in a mysterious way, and was contriving to ensure everything worked out for the best. After a fashion, Raining Stones resembled an Italian neo-realist film from decades before where the makers' Catholic milieu informed even the most atheistic among them, as if no matter their dedication to the material here and now they could not escape the lessons they had grown up with and learned in church. There was a strong element of the religious in Loach and Allen's efforts that was not apparent for almost the whole of the running time, as the characters' struggles would appear to be playing out in a Godless world.
Tommy tells a joke early on in the pub scene about a miracle at Lourdes that sounds throwaway, but actually has some relevance: if there is a higher being looking down, why don't do they do more to help those who really need that guidance instead of either ignoring you, or if you believe, barely meeting you halfway to resolve your problems? While Bob and Tommy are in the pub, somebody steals the van, which informs the rest of the narrative as it sinks Bob into dire straits for without his wheels he cannot work, even if that work can be less than legal, shall we say - though to his credit, he does try to go legit more than he does cheat the system. Loach was not afraid to aim for the disturbing, as there was a sequence where Anne is visited by loan sharks who have bought her husband's debt, a chilling scene thanks to its brutal realism and aggression that beat any horror film for breaking a cold sweat on the viewer's brow. Not to spoil it, but though the resolution verged on the melodramatic, even deus ex machina, it was thought provoking too. Music by Stewart Copeland.
[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 Ladybird Ladybird. 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.]