After watching I, Daniel Blake, a friend asked: ‘Did you enjoy it?’ My first thought was, does anyone actually enjoy Ken Loach films, a director who over the past 40 years has tackled some of the grittiest social economic problems of the UK? My answer though, was yes. While I, Daniel Blake may at times be a hard watch, it is an important and furious film – fully deserving of Loach’s second Palme d’Or from this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Daniel (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged carpenter who after a heart attack is left unable to work and attempts to gain access to welfare benefits. Here he meets single mother Kate (Hayley Squires), newly arrived in Newcastle from London and struggling to navigate both a new city and the benefits system.
Loach, once again, focuses the story on the importance of community, with realistic and relatable characters who tread the daily, yet precarious path between survival and poverty. Through following Daniel and Kate, we are reminded how easy it is to slip and fall onto the wrong side; both are struggling, not actively against the system, but to simply gain access to what is due to them. The State and its processes are unwieldy and appear immovable, with some of the bureaucracy they are faced with feeling incredulous, though worryingly realistic.
Johns and Squires are just extraordinary and at times, sublime. They show their exasperation and the slow build-up of panic, in different but equally compelling ways. Squires has a contender for scene of the year, while Johns’ portrayal of Daniel is one of the most genuine and raw performances of recent time.
The two seemed to fill a void in each other’s lives and the kindness and appreciation they show each other, through simple and understated moments, feel heartfelt, supportive and essential. These themes are echoed throughout the film with brief insights into the wider social-economic community, who in the absence of the State, attempt to look after their own.
Loach shoots the film, in his typical minimalist style, almost entirely in natural light, appearing to want nothing to detract from the power of the story. This, coupled with the confronting narrative, could be overpowering, though Loach blends in some dark humour to highlight the absurdity of the situations, which while not played for comic effect, is welcome and cathartic.
Only Ken Loach could have made this film and I, Daniel Blake, is a brutal yet brilliant piece of British realism that treats its characters with a level of dignity and respect, which Loach clearly feels the UK Government does not. There is an anger and sense of injustice running throughout the film, though this is softened and kept in perspective by the power of the performances and the endearing portrayal of community and the kindness of strangers.
Simply, one of the best films of the year.