UK Release Date: 21st October 2016
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Kema Sikazwe, Mick Laffey
Synopsis: A joiner signed off work following a heart attack must navigate the complexity of Britain’s benefits system to keep himself afloat, whilst also helping a single mother similarly battling the system.
Ken Loach is a filmmaker who has come to define British cinema, from kitchen sink classics such as Kes to his recent, more low-key work. He has thrust himself right to the forefront of the political agenda once again with Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, which is a potent examination of the British benefits system and a call to arms for those who have been left behind by the last six years of Conservative rule. It’s the sort of film that should be required viewing for anyone before they enter the ballot box based on its damning portrayal of a system that serves to hold down those in need.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) has worked as a joiner all his life, but has been signed off by doctors following a heart attack. He is deemed fit to work by the Department of Work and Pensions and so must enter the labyrinthine world of applying for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Whilst struggling with the system’s complex criteria, he meets single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been relocated from London to Newcastle due to a lack of social housing. The two of them work together to navigate the system, which repeatedly seems to throw further obstacles into their path.
The scenarios depicted in I, Daniel Blake are bracingly familiar for anyone who has had the misfortune to enter the dark, dismal world of Britain’s Jobcentres. Blake’s attempts to honestly claim the support he is entitled to are constantly thwarted at every turn by bureaucracy and systems that, as one character points out, seem designed to encourage deserving claimants to simply give up on seeking assistance from the state. Loach’s trademark has always been a warts-and-all portrayal of British society and his latest film has all of that in spades. It’s certainly a left-wing polemic, but one backed up by extensive research from Loach and regular screenwriter Paul Laverty.
There’s more to I, Daniel Blake than political argument, though, in the shape of two immensely powerful central performances. Dave Johns, a stand-up comedian, is perfect as the hard-working everyman at the centre of the story, getting right to the heart of the system’s most ridiculous excesses with palpable desperation. His performance also comes with an expertly judged twist of acerbic wit, with barbed quips highlighting every hole in the benefits system and shining a blinding spotlight on its hypocrisies.
Even more impressive, though, is Hayley Squires as Katie. Her portrayal of a young mother entirely at the mercy of the DWP is at once shocking and recognisable. Much has been made of a pivotal scene set in a food bank around her character and it is, quite simply, one of the most devastating cinematic moments of the year. Loach shears away every element of fiction from the film in order to create a bracing, uncomfortable depiction of what the United Kingdom has become. Squires’ prickly performance, running the gamut from pride to pity, is nothing short of remarkable and gets right to the heart of Loach’s central argument. The director wisely sits back in a visual sense, allowing his performers to tell the story.
Despite the polemical nature of his film, Loach largely resists moments of outright political grandstanding. A scene in which Blake daubs graffiti on the outside of a Jobcentre has been heavily trailed, but it is the quiet moments with characters that make the strongest arguments. As he always has, Loach’s desire here is not to construct a straw man, but to encourage the nation to look into the mirror and decide whether what it can see is tolerable at all. Many people are like Daniel Blake. More still know a Daniel Blake. And everyone should be troubled by Daniel Blake, because this film is a potent punch in the gut.
Pop or Poop?
Ken Loach has issued a rallying cry to the masses with I, Daniel Blake. This is a political argument in narrative form, but it’s also a terrifyingly genuine examination of a benefits system that simply does not work for those it claims to help. Johns and Squires are nothing short of remarkable in their roles, but the most stunning thing here is just how real it all feels. Angry? You should be.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.