Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Natalie Ann Jamieson
Director: Ken Loach
Running Time: 100 mins
Synopsis: After being told not to work due to a heart attack, carpenter Daniel Blake (Johns) attempts to find financial support from the welfare state but finds repeated bureaucratic barriers. He meets a struggling single mother (Squires) and together they face the true flaws of our state benefit system.
Ken Loach has been the master of naturalistic socially astute homegrown films for decades now. But a few years back, in a sudden turn, he announced his retirement. Perhaps finding himself lacking anything to rail against anymore, he chose to slip away into the annals of film history quietly and gracefully. Suddenly though he burst back into life, and revealed his latest would play at this years Cannes film festival. Not only that he actually managed to win the coveted Palme D’Or, not bad for an 80yr old man who supposedly had nothing left to say. How a tiny film about a Northern carpenter trying to claim benefits and in which a lengthy scene is dedicated to said character trying to fill out an online form won over a panel of international film experts should be of importance but on watching the film the reasons are clear. Loach has constructed a quietly powerful tribute to the every-man, not to mention a scalding resonant attack on the state of the nation today.
Eschewing well known names as per the norm with Loach, we follow Dave Johns’s Daniel as he is told that he cannot work due to his recent heart troubles. The film opens with a painfully real and surprisingly funny (in fact the whole film has a low-key humorous side) medical evaluation. Right from the off Loach and writer Paul Laverty drill into the innate frustrations of the long winded bureaucratic nonsense that comes with the benefit structure. With each stupid question the (unqualified) medical examiner asks, Daniel and we become ever more riled up, and that sense of genuine anger escalates as the film progresses.
As you can guess from a film surrounding one mans quest to receive benefits, this is not a plot driven propulsive movie but one routed in character, moments of truth and naturalism. Predominately it follows the relationship between Blake and Hayley Squires’s Katie. A single mum with two young kids, sent away from London to Newcastle because no homes were available for her, we are introduced to her in a fiery job centre scene. Voice raised, desperate and lonely she finds herself butting heads with some extremely unhelpful Job Centre staff. Daniel takes pity on her and a beautifully sketched relationship begins. It is all in the little moments, and this is a film filled to the brim with them. Katie offering a meal to Daniel as a thank you for him helping her around the house, whilst going without herself, is a moment of real grace and quiet power. She has nothing of which to give as thanks except the food she can barely afford, but she desperately wants to feel like she has rewarded him.
Events continue to spiral out of control for the two of them, and Loach avoids any typical movie traits designed to elicit a specific response. He knows that the story has enough power without the need to fall into melodrama. Signalled most notably in the absence of any score. It can be disconcerting towards the start when you realise that the soundtrack to this will be nothing more than talking but enables us to focus on the performances to wring the required emotions. At numerous times it will take a cold individual to not shed a tear. One scene in particular in a food bank is so raw, devastating and beautifully played by Squires that I was left a weeping mess. Filmed unflinchingly with a static mid-distanced camera akin to a documentary, it is a moment of overwhelming power, and possibly the films high point.
Sadly in the third act, a couple of plot turns feel cliched and soap opera like which unfortunately have the air of unbelievablity. Not because they are unrealistic, in fact one turn in particular is probably a lot more common place in reality than we’d like, but because we’ve seen these moments used with a lack of grace in TV soaps or more melodramatic films before that it can’t help but feel cheap. Loach still films these events with subtlety and a quiet dignity but I would’ve like to have seen something a bit more challenging. The same goes for a turn that leads into the final scenes, and although it feels incredibly inevitable, it does allow the very last moment to end on a speech of undeniable sadness. Not to mention a perfect final line.
Loach perhaps goes a little overboard with his message too. He doesn’t make much of an effort to show any good side to the state system. One Job Centre employee shows some care towards our hero, but all the rest are portrayed as stand offish and bullish. I understand the point Loach is trying to make but was it not enough to just focus on the fiendishly complicated state bureaucracy rather than also making every Government employee a hopeless and cruel perpetrator of unhelpfulness. It is also unfathomably on the nose when after an impassioned moment of rebellion from Blake we are then forced to listen to a random aggressive rant from a passerby with such delights as ‘that cunt Iain Duncan Smith’ a part of it. It’s all a little tacky and kills what is an otherwise effective scene.
These are minor flaws though in a film of staggering grace. In the tumultuous times we live in now, in this world of Brexit and Trump, I, Daniel Blake is a vital, and morally resonant piece of socialist cinema. It demands to be seen. If Ken Loach does decide to make his retirement permanent this time then he will have left a timely reminder of the state of the nation!
Verdict: Ken Loach has crafted a film of quiet power, it should connect with anyone who has a social conscience, and will leave you angered, shaken and tear stained. Scathingly relevant and required viewing for all.