Imbued with equal parts warmth and outrage, I, Daniel Blake is arresting and important cinema – essential viewing.
From the glum realism of 1969’s Kes, to the tragedy and bloodshed of 1995’s Land and Freedom, English director Ken Loach has crafted an impressive and varied back catalogue. Now aged 80, his desire to broadcast injustice and make demands for a better world remains as powerful as ever, equalled by his immense skill behind the camera. With this year’s I, Daniel Blake, Loach fixes his sights on contemporary Britain, and an uncaring state that uses its most vulnerable constituents for political capital.
As one would expect, I, Daniel Blake has a political agenda inherent in its design. Despite this, however, it never feels as though one is being preached to. Rather, we are shown an interpretation of reality and asked to draw our own conclusions. Paul Laverty’s script (his fourteenth with Loach) wisely roots itself in compelling and sympathetic character drama, focusing on the human experience in a world that is all-too-often reduced to a series of statistics and quotas. Meanwhile, Loach’s talent in making the everyday appear cinematic results in a picture that is both emotionally and visually striking.
Although the film focuses on a thoroughly depressing subject matter, it avoids submerging itself in misery. Laverty’s dialogue has a great sense of wit that runs throughout all but the most harrowing moments, and every key cast member instills their role with a genuine sense of warmth and humanity – it’s this unrelenting charm in the face of adversity that makes their continued plight feel all the more senseless.
Dave John stars as the eponymous Dan, a 59-year-old joiner who finds himself unable to work and reliant on the state following a major heart attack. It’s an impressive performance from an actor more likely to be found on Never Mind the Buzzcocks than a social-realist drama. Dan’s frustration is palpable as he grapples with the Department for Work and Pensions, every step powerfully chronicled as he faces layers of bureaucratic apathy.
The stand out performance of the film, however, is delivered by Hayley Squires as Katie, a single mother struggling to provide for her children after relocating from London. Squires shines in some moments of heart wrenching reality, as Katie tries to stay afloat against a tide of poverty and benefit sanctions. Her story packs an emotional punch that catches one off guard and leaves a harrowing impression.
I, Daniel Blake is not just a populist call to arms, but a damn good piece of film-making. Fundamentally, Loach has taken a series of phrases with which the newspapers have made us unfortunately familiar – sanctions, fit-for-work assessments, food banks – and placed them within their human context. He shows how people depend upon this confused labyrinth of paperwork and assessments for their very survival, and how the system is corrupted for political convenience. As a film-maker, Loach’s power ends here, but if we, as citizens, are truly appalled by what he has put on screen, then it is our responsibility to demand the change we seek. As the title suggests, Daniel Blake could be any of us, and this reminder of our collective responsibility is the film’s most essential ideal. I, Daniel Blake is enlightening, gripping, and emotionally exhausting, but more than anything, it’s important.