Nobody quite portrays Britain like Ken Loach. And if one thing is for certain in the eclectic world of British cinema, it is that the veteran director’s social realist pieces provide an acerbic depiction of the country that bore him. His latest offering I, Daniel Blake looks to expose injustice in contemporary Britain for perhaps one of his most timely cinematic offerings yet.
Never one to obscure his ideologies and critiques, Loach has seemingly been galvanised into this return to filmmaking (he retired in 2014) by a country he sees as suffering from a vicious austerity agenda. In response, he’s crafted a film with an agenda of its own.
Newcastle serves as the milieu for this potent tale to unfurl. The film opens with a black screen as we hear our protagonist, Daniel Blake (portrayed compellingly by comedian Dave Johns), being barked at by an apathetic health care professional. Despite being deemed unfit to work by a doctor after a recent heart attack, the unfair test reverses the doctor’s findings. To make matters worse, Daniel’s entire working life has been in skilled manual labour and the internet-driven present day of online JSA forms and ordering fake trainers from China has passed him by.
This sets the narrative in motion with Daniel stuck in a purgatory between job seekers allowance and disability benefits as he appeals the decision. Daniel’s predicament works to display the absurdity of a system that expects someone incapable of working to spend 35 hours a week handing out CV’s.
On one of his many travels to the unsupportive job centre, Daniel happens upon a single mother-of-two, Katie (Hayley Squires), who has just been relocated from London through a housing scheme. As she’s minutes late for her appointment, she is being penalised and is risks having her benefits frozen. Her pleas that she had to find her way around the new city fall on unsympathetic ears. Stunned by the lack of compassion, Daniel steps in to intervene - thus sparking a genuinely touching friendship where both find solace in each others support.
Cynics often berate Ken Loach’s films as didactic propaganda, suffused in left wing principles. It would be difficult to apply this criticism to the script devised by frequent Loch collaborator Paul Laverty though. The material for the film is inspired by and based upon meticulous research and interviews. This detail only serves to worsen the blow of scenes such Katie’s daughter confessing to being ridiculed for having broken school shoes, or Daniel’s presentation of his handwritten CV. One scene that has a acutely lasting resonance is Katie’s hunger induced breakdown in a food bank, made all the more palpable by the fact that over a million people in the UK are now forced to use food banks.
This is a candid and profoundly affecting film that is bolstered by social realist conventions such shooting on location, natural lighting and unknown actors. With static wide-angle shots and the ability to inspire formidable performances from his cast, Loach once again proves that the spirit of De Sica is alive in modern cinema. Delivered with the idiosyncratic injection of scathing politics and intense tenderness that make him an auteur in his own right. Just as he did with Cathy Come Home in the 60’s and countless others throughout his career, Loach manages to evoke empathy and awareness for those that truly need it.
Sometimes a piece of cinema means a little more than mere entertainment. This is a cut-to-your-core representation of bureaucracy vs. society. A government telling people to strive for more isn’t helpful when you’ve got 12 quid in your purse and mouths to feed. I, Daniel Blake isn’t a film; it’s a war cry for change.
I, DANIEL BLAKE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: KEN LOACH / SCREENPLAY: PAUL LAVERTY / STARRING: DAVE JOHNS, HAYLEY SQUIRES, SHARON PERCY, BRIANA SHANN, DYLAN MCKIERNAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW