Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ken Loach
Stars: Daniel Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Brianna Shann, Sharon Percy.
Ken Loach is the socially progressive angry old man of British cinema whose films have often championed the underdog, the oppressed, the marginalised and the working class. A polemic filmmaker well known for his often confronting style, Loach tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. At the age of 79 he emerged from retirement for his latest film, a grim slice of life drama that offers up a sharp commentary on the state of modern Britain. I, Daniel Blake is also a potent and moving character study that serves up a potent howl of outrage and anger at the unfeeling bureaucracy and red tape that drives much of Britain’s welfare system. Here Loach again rages against the machine in arguably his most accessible film since 2012’s The Angel’s Share.
Daniel Blake (played here by stand up comedian Dave Johns) is a 60 year old carpenter who has worked for most of his life. But when he suffers a heart attack at work his doctors declare him unfit to return to work. For the first time in his life he needs to rely on welfare and financial assistance. However instead of finding compassion and assistance he finds himself embroiled in a frustrating clash with the welfare system to claim sickness benefits. He is informed that, according to the department’s checklist, he is fit for work. But in order to claim his dole benefits he must be actively looking for work.
Thus begins a frustrating and humiliating cycle of training courses, learning how to write resumes, and the futile task of applying for non-existent jobs. Having been a carpenter all his life and having worked with his hands, Daniel has precious little computer skills or technical knowledge, and is basically unsuited for most jobs in an age of IT. Instead of getting real help Daniel finds himself going around in circles, becoming more frustrated and disillusioned with the system.
While dealing with the implacable bureaucrats in the welfare office and his Catch-22 like situation, Blake comes to the assistance of Katie (Hayley Squires, from A Royal Night Out, etc), a single mother with two young children who is also struggling. Kate has been sent 500kms from her home to gain financial assistance from the state. In order to eke out a meagre living Katie is forced to find work in the most degrading of circumstances. There is one quite disturbing scene set in a food bank that highlights her desperation. Despite his own financial struggles, Daniel befriends Katie and helps her out. Some elements of the film will remind audiences of Loach’s 1998 drama My Name Is Joe.
This synopsis makes the film sound quite downbeat, and it does arouse feelings of anger and despair from the audience as we witness Blake’s struggle to maintain his dignity and self respect. However, Loach and his regular writer and collaborator Paul Laverty have managed to work in some great touches of humour that soften the blows. I, Daniel Blake is also very effective and surprisingly accessible.
As usual, Loach draws authentic performances from his cast of unknowns and non-professional actors. Johns delivers an emotional and quite moving performance in a dramatic role. His increasing frustration in dealing with the bureaucracy who seem to put a number of obstacles in the way of people who are at their most vulnerable and desperate will resonate strongly with anyone who has had the experience of dealing with welfare agencies. Squires is a fantastic discovery, and she delivers a raw and emotionally powerful performance.
This important and blistering film has a social conscience and shows the hardships of the down and out and the working class in contemporary Britain. I, Daniel Blake demonstrates how red tape and bureaucracy can ruin lives. It’s no wonder that Loach snared his second director’s prize at Cannes for his work here. It seems that he has lost none of his firebrand approach nor softened with age.