An astonishing, unforgiving gut-punch.
For those who aren’t familiar with Ken Loach’s work, his films tend to focus on social issues, such as poverty in Kes, homelessness in Cathy Come Home, drugs and teens in Sweet Sixteen, unemployment in The Angel’s Share and most recently, the benefit system. There’s a reason I, Daniel Blake won Loach his second Palme d’Or. It’s not just a rant about the government; it’s a powerful, moving tale of the everyday man slipping through a broken system.
When joiner Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) has a heart attack, he has to apply for Employment and Support Allowance. However, he doesn’t reach the number of ‘points’ needed to qualify, thereby deemed fit for work, so he is forced to claim Jobseekers Allowance until his appeal comes through. During his struggle, he meets a young London mum, Katy (Hayley Squires).
Dave Johns manages a tremendously difficult feat – making the viewer forget he’s an actor. Throughout the film, he plays his character with a true, harmonious decency and honesty; an undeniably likeable character that can resonate with everyone on some level.
Squires has a father-daughter dynamic with Johns, which enhances the drama and gives another layer to an otherwise politically fuelled story. Her performance is a real highlight, again never feeling unnatural as young, struggling mother, quite often stealing some of the film’s most emotional, heart wrenching scenes. On one occasion her dire hunger makes her desperately grab a tin of baked beans at a food bank, trembling as she cracks it open before breaking down. It’s a scene (among many others) that will upset and infuriate, and sadly remind viewers of the struggle young families are facing today.
It’s obviously not a big-budget production (the credits last a mere two minutes), but Loach doesn’t need the luxuries of a Hollywood production. There’s no need for movie stars or special effects, this is a grounded, raw story that needs an intimate, focused director; like Loach. As mentioned, his films normally revolve around social issues, made out of the director’s concern and need for them to be acknowledged. His trademark lack of subtlety is down to one thing – Loach is angry.
The film’s core message is simple and impossible to ignore; an impassioned critique of Tory Britain. The austerity measures, the means-testing, the attitudes – everything linked to the current state of the country comes under fire from Loach, and it’s likely that the film will kickstart debate across the country, and possibly even evoke change (look out for I, Daniel Blake spray painted on the walls of Job Centres).
Loach also thanks those who help the people in need, whether it is friendly advice, helping with shopping or even filling out a form. Blake as a character is an old man, behind the times and struggling with the technological revolution. Watching him try to traverse the world of online forms may grab a few chuckles from the audience, but it’s played out with an underlying despair.
To sum it up…
If this is the legendary filmmaker’s last film, what a way to finish. Paced well with outstanding performances, it’ll stay with you for a long time, as well as leave you whimpering. Importantly though I, Daniel Blake is more than a film – it’s a politically furious outcry, well deserving of the round of applause it received when I saw it.