Ken Loach’s career has spanned fifty years – his first feature film being released in 1967 and having produced numerous teleplays for the BBC as far back as 1964. It is exceedingly rare for a filmmaker to be working for such a long period: it is rarer still for that filmmaker to still be capable of producing something that carries any semblance of importance or gravitas.
Ken Loach not only meets this uncommon criteria – but he surpasses it. His work may never have felt more relevant than it does today. I am of course, referring to his new film, I, Daniel Blake. It tells the story of its title character, played with affable charm and down to earth humour by Dave Johns – a 59 year old Geordie woodworker, and recent widower – as he navigates the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the British benefits system.
The film opens with Dan, having suffered a heart attack, talking with a robotic, and unseen, ‘healthcare professional’. It appears however, that he does not meet the required number of ‘points’ to qualify for Employment and Support Allowance. Dan is an honest sort, admitting, perhaps naively, that he can ‘walk 50 metres unaided’ and can ‘raise either arm’ up to his top pocket. Because of this, he is deemed fit to work: a decision very much against his doctor’s orders.
From here, Dan finds himself in the middle of a farcical odyssey, in which he must apply for Job Seekers Allowance to support himself. As Dan points out, the entire situation is ridiculous: he is tasked with spending 36 hours a week searching for a job, in a place where there aren’t any, whilst being physically incapable of actually carrying out any of the jobs on offer. He needs to however – he has no other form of income. He holds out hope for an appeal on his Employment and Support Allowance.
Everything seems to be a hurdle for Dan; from writing a proper CV, to using a computer for the first time; one of the films most amusing sequences, and printing out the appeal form he so desperately needs. Every victory is short lived, and is followed by even more complications. Dan is a trouper however, and he fights on.
Though the film follows Dan’s journey, we repeatedly encounter other projections of modern poverty. The film is centred on the controversial benefits reform of the past few years, but rent rates, lack of good jobs, homelessness and the bedroom tax are all touched upon by a film interested foremost in exposing the cruel sense of indifference that drives governmental treatment of the dispossessed. Much of this is reflected through Katie, (Hayley Squires) a tragic figure in the film, who along with her two children, has been forced to move away from London by a draconian landlord, and has to live in poorly maintained housing in Newcastle.
Katie’s own arc is slightly more contrived than Dan’s and she sometimes feels like a plot device, yet her story is more than redeemed by the fearless performance of Ms. Squires – embuing the character with an understated strength and fierce sense of justice. The bond that she and her children form with the otherwise lonely Dan constitutes the film’s emotional core, and both actors are magnificent in conveying both tenderness and desperation.
The characters ponder more than once that the machine like complexity of the situation they are in may have been made that way intentionally – Loach certainly thinks so. Even though the workers at the job centre (which is apparently owned by an American company) are shown to be unsympathetic, they are not bad per se – just apathetic. Like everyone else, they’re caught up in an unkind and regimented system – one where a consultant who directly helps a client, is scolded and told to remember their place.
Indeed, the outlook is rather bleak. Some parts of the film are incredibly raw – whether it be the look of humiliation and hurt pride on Dan’s face when he is accused of being a benefits scrounger, Katie breaking down inside a foodbank or Dan longingly recalling his late wife – watching the characters struggle to gain even the slightest degree self respect in such a real and visceral way, is difficult to watch.
It is a testament to this film then, that against such dark and asocial surroundings, the humanity of the characters shines through. While the film can seem hopeless, it is also disarmingly amusing; the rapport that Dan shares with his young neighbours is a highlight. Dave Johns is a comedian by trade, and he carries on the tradition set by other comedic actors such as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, in giving a performance that is one part funny, and another part deeply intimate. This is probably why this film will stick with me. Dan’s good nature, refreshing humour and courageous defiance is what makes the film so poignant, and so real.
I, Daniel Blake closely resembles Loach’s BBC teleplay ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966). The play was so influential in it’s day that it helped inspire the formation of the charity ‘Shelter’, and angered the British public into pressuring the government to introduce legislation to protect the homeless. One can only hope that Loach’s most recent creation, I, Daniel Blake will have a similar social effect today. Loach’s brand of socialist realism may not be for everyone and some may find his portrayal of this issue too black and white, an issue I held with his previous film, 2014’s Jimmy’s Hall. In the case of this film however, I disagree strongly with that sentiment. This film is necessary viewing.
I, Daniel Blake is in cinemas now.