You very much know what you are going to get from Ken Loach. He rarely works in genre, unless you consider the Loach picture a genre in itself (the case can be made). Since making Kathy Come Home for the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand in 1966 Loach has spent the ensuing 50 years making socially conscious, usually contemporary dramas with socialist themes. His films take place in working class milieus, and he finds warmth and humour even in the grimmest of subjects.
I, Daniel Blake is the director’s most nakedly political film in years. Loach had announced his retirement from narrative film making following his previous film Jimmy’s Hall, a period drama set in Ireland. In interviews Loach has said his announcement was hasty in retrospect. Discussions with frequent collaborator screenwriter Paul Laverty around the rise of food banks and poverty in the UK convinced him that there was a film that must be done on the topic.
I, Daniel Blake begins with a phone conversation being played out over a black screen. Following a heart attack skilled joiner Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) has been informed he cannot work by his GP. To claim Employment and Support Allowance he has to undertake a Work Capability Assessment. Despite having filled in the application form, and the fact that it is the weakness of his heart that is preventing him from working, he is forced to answer a series of health questions that have almost no relevance to his situation.
This is the beginning of a descent into a bureaucratic system that in Ken Loach’s clearly polemical film is portrayed as alienating, callous and designed with conscious malice to discourage applicants and shift unemployment figures from one column in a spreadsheet to another more statistically advantageous to government.
In trying to claim the benefits he should have the right to as a citizen and tax payer, Blake encounters official obfuscation, obstruction and dilemmas created by a nightmarish mess of conflicting or dependent conditions.
When he receives a letter informing him that he has failed to achieve the necessary 15 points on his Work Capability Assessment (he scores 12), he is told he cannot appeal until he receives a phone call from the ‘Decision Maker’ to tell him the content of the letter he has received. No time scale is given and until the appeal he will not receive benefits. He can however apply for jobseekers allowance, but this is dependent upon his spending 30 hours a week trying to find work. Nevertheless, he cannot work because his doctor has said he is not fit to work.
During one of his frustrating visits to his local Jobcentre Plus, Blake meets Katie (Hayley Squires) a young mother with two kids who has missed her benefits appointment because she has just arrived in Newcastle and gets lost. Katie and her children have spent the last two years in a homeless shelter in London, when a flat is finally available for them, it is at the other end of the country, away from their family and friends.
Daniel and Katie strike up a friendship, and the older man who seems to be looking for something to do, begins to help her fix up her new flat. Helping with shopping, doing odd jobs around the house, showing her how to use bubble wrap as insulation on the windows as she waits for money to be able to put something on the electric meter.
As much as the apparatus of the welfare state (such as it now is) is seen as at best uncaring, and at worst actively designed to crush the spirit. As much as the film can be emotionally brutalising. This is likewise a film with optimism about people. The state may have withdrawn from supporting its most vulnerable members, but ordinary people try to fill the vacuum. In what is simultaneously the most distressing and the most moving scene I have experienced in any film this year Daniel accompanies Katie to a food bank. Real volunteers play the staff, and somehow their warmth and caring make the stark desperation of those visiting all the more distressing to watch.
When this film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, there was a certain amount of sniping from the wings from film critics. There were grumblings that the film was artless. To be blunt. That is absolute garbage. Watch that food bank scene, watch how it is paced and edited, feel the effect it has on you and tell me that is artless film making again. The other repeated grumble was that the film lacks subtlety. Which is like complaining that the first 30 mins of Saving Private Ryan are ‘a bit loud’. The only response is… ‘Yes. And. So. What?’ Nothing more annoying than attacking a film for doing exactly what it intended to.
It has been noted in several reviews that the film is like a bookshelf Daniel Blake builds. It is a solid, well constructed and robust piece of craftsmanship. It isn’t flashy, and it won’t fall apart after three months like everything I buy from IKEA. However, it is more than that, I left the cinema shaking with emotion. And I wasn’t alone. It takes more than craftsmanship to achieve that in an audience.
The performances of Dave Johns and Hayley Squires in the principal parts are outstanding. Johns does not play Daniel Blake as a martyr or saint, but as a relatable character trying to deal with the system to which he has dutifully contributed all of his life suddenly fails to keep its end of the bargain. Squires is surely a future star, she is given the film’s most outstanding and memorable scene and truly makes you feel her characters shame and despair at being unable to keep her children warm at night, or buy them new shoes.
I, Daniel Blake is not perfect. In researching real life stories, Loach and Laverty have perhaps applied too many of them to too few characters to be entirely plausible (although the performances are so good they get away with it). There is a Jobcentre manager who is obviously sadistic. That character did not ring true to me and felt like caricature. A CV clinic Daniel is forced to attend skirts a little too closely to Pauline and her pens from The League of Gentlemen. And the political campaigning that has formed part of the film’s marketing campaign may alienate disillusioned citizens with centre right leanings, who would be just as receptive the film’s message.
Ultimately none of this really matters. Marketing is ephemeral, it fades quickly, but a great film sustains. And this is a great and a very timely film that captures the palpable mood is confusion and disillusionment post Brexit vote that crosses party political affiliations. Propaganda it may be, but it is an undeniably moving piece of work that carries a devastating impact.