10 Essential Ken Loach Films

Cillian Murphy as Damien O'Donovan and Pádraic Delaney as Teddy O'Donovan in 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley'

Cillian Murphy as Damien O'Donovan and Pádraic Delaney as Teddy O'Donovan in 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley'

Element Pictures

British national treasure Ken Loach's final film, The Old Oak, premiered just over a year ago at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival but is only just reaching theaters in America, ironically, as the Labour Party wins a landslide victory in the July 4th election. With The Old Oak's final release, Loach completes a 50-year-plus career of stirring and urgent looks at divisions and injustices faced by ordinary folk throughout the past century. 

Grounding his camera in the mundane but lively movements of the working class, not to mention their brushes against powerful, unsympathetic systems, Loach has tried to avoid phony sentiment and melodramatic indulgence in all his works, telling stories with a direct simplicity that holds a lot of pathos. The reality of Britain’s impoverished and politically marginalized is already emotional and compelling without dressing it up any other way – and a huge source of warm, humanist drama.

After announcing his retirement with The Old Oak, his latest look at local solidarity, Loach leaves a body of work that exposes the fallacy of Britain’s imperialist and conservative history. His message to the disenfranchised is that only by standing together can social mobility and justice occur. For the uninitiated, here are the ten essential Ken Loach films across his storied career.

'Poor Cow'

Loach’s first theatrically released film, 1967’s Poor Cow, is emblematic of the “kitchen sink” social drama, where disillusioned and disenfranchised characters – traditionally men – lashed out against the prescriptive and limited avenues to success in postwar Britain. Focusing on an abused housewife and mother, played by Carol White, Poor Cow shows the restlessness faced by precarious women in working-class households, as the protagonist shifts between houses and occupations and tries to protect her family and feel fulfilled at the same time.

Poor Cow is available for streaming rental on Plex.


Kes is a scathing look at Britain’s education system, with only a boy’s private passion for falconry, which provides hope in an industrial Yorkshire town. The 1969 film focuses on Billy Casper, whose father is absent, his mother withholds proper affection, and his older brother is abusive. Combined with corporal punishment at school and the education system refusing to meet his needs and aspirations, he’s completely alienated from a happy, fulfilling future. 

His pet falcon, Kes, is the only thing lighting up this dim view of a punishing Britain; world-class performances and a stunning visual palette make Kes an enduring masterwork.

Kes is available on streaming as an Amazon Rental.

'Land & Freedom'

Loach turned to 1930s Liverpool for his 1995 film Land & Freedom, a story of the Communist cause in the Spanish Civil War, casting Ian Hart (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) as a leftist radicalized by the anti-fascist cause who joins a Marxist splinter group on the Spanish front. In Loach’s hands, ordinary perspectives become imbued with tremendous nuance and power, and this story of the radical front is loaded with warmth and tension. 

It certainly makes an excellent counterpoint to the other film in which Brits go to Spain to join the fight, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, largely because Jean Brodie sent a school pupil to fight and die for the fascists. I don’t think Miss Brodie would like Ken Loach films.

Land & Freedom is streaming on Roku.

'My Name is Joe'

The first of three Scotland-set films on this list (we assure you that the Scottish nationality of this writer did not create a bias) is 1998's My Name is Joe. Loach’s love affair with Britain’s electorally disadvantaged meant he often crossed the border from North England to Bonnie Scotland. The star of Loach's first foray up north, Peter Mullan, also spent the 1990s finding his own voice as a filmmaker while starring in some of the decade’s most significant films like Braveheart and Trainspotting

A few months before Mullan's seminal Scottish film Orphans launched at Venice, he scooped up the Cannes Best Actor prize for his leading turn in My Name is Joe, a big-hearted, tough-as-nails romance in Glasgow.

My Name is Joe is available as a streaming rental on Fandango at Home.

'Sweet Sixteen'

Years before he took up the mantle of fighting corrupt coppers, Scottish actor Martin Compston had a breakout role in Loach's 2002 film Sweet Sixteen as a teenager anticipating his mother’s release from prison. Loach looks at how a coming-of-age journey becomes entwined with a local-level crime. Compston’s young role feels alive with an electric, uncontainable energy. This bittersweet film marked another high point in the ongoing collaboration with screenwriter Paul Laverty – who would pen 14 Ken Loach scripts by the end of his career.

Sweet Sixteen is available to stream via YouTube Premium.

'The Wind that Shakes the Barley'

Loach won his first Palme d’Or (it’s nice to have more than one!) for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which is probably his finest film – an account of the Irish War of Independence and the closely following Irish Civil War in 1920s County Cork, led by a still-rising and completely engrossing Cillian Murphy. Loach’s unfussy visual style proves a perfect match for the fraught relationships and violent suppression faced by the revolutionaries. 

The filmmaker set out to explore why the Irish Revolutionary War was socialist rather than nationalist, and the film serves as a firm rebuttal of the colonialist revisions surrounding the fight for Ireland’s statehood.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is streaming on AMC+.

'Looking for Eric'

After a footballing career of weird press conference statements and flying kicks at spectators, Manchester United superstar Eric Cantona unexpectedly pivoted to acting. His most memorable role, aside from playing Monsieur de Foix in the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth film, was in the Ken Loach sports comedy Looking for Eric, where the French footballer played a hallucinatory version of himself imparting his trademark baffling philosophy onto an English footy-mad postman. 

Big-hearted and not afraid of real life’s inherent darkness, this is one of Loach’s most winning surprises.

Looking for Eric is streaming on IFC and AMC+.

'The Angel’s Share'

The Angel's Share is a class-conscious Scottish caper – well, as caper-ish as Ken Loach can get. A group of working-class Scots plot to steal priceless whiskey from a distillery to finally escape their violent upbringing, and the Scots-speaking heist crew make for a hilarious and touching gang to guide us through a sharply divided Scotland. 

Whiskey has been by far Scotland’s largest food and drink export for years, and seeing the contrasts between those Scotland does not deem valuable, and the commodity it does makes for a watch that’s equal parts infuriating and cathartic.

The Angel's Share is streaming on Roku.

'I, Daniel Blake'

Ken Loach picked up his second Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake, a film about how bureaucracy alienates and debilitates vast swathes of Britain’s unemployed population, and looking back, it feels like the quintessential film for Britain’s recent era of austerity. 

It follows an older man whose disability disqualifies him from work but who is shut out from a shrinking welfare system designed to reduce government support of vulnerable people. It feels as urgent as it did in 2018, a rallying cry for compassion and community in punitive modern times.

I, Daniel Blake is streaming on AMC+ and IFC Films.

'The Old Oak'

Loach may have reached the end of his filmmaking career, but his messaging hasn’t gotten any less explicit. In The Old Oak, a pub landlord deals with his Durham hometown in crisis: there’s no growth after the mining industry shuttered, public spaces like his pub are being forced to close, and tensions flare up with an influx of Syrian refugees. 

But when the landlord strikes up a friendship with one refugee and her camera, a unified voice against a shared struggle is formed. Forgive Ken if he leans into sentimentality with this one – anyone who finishes 55 years of making movies like this is bound to get a little emotional.

The Old Oak is currently in limited release in America and available as a streaming rental on Apple TV.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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