Ken Loach’s outrage hasn’t been so evident in years. Returning to the modern day (and to form) after Jimmy’s Hall and documentary The Spirit of ’45, Loach uses I, Daniel Blake to train his ire on everything that blights austerity Britain: encroaching privatization of public services, a shrinking jobs market, zero-hours contracts, rising poverty and homelessness, and, above all else, the country’s deliberately overbearingly bureaucratic “benefits system.” These are issues so pressing they (since no one else in UK film was adequately willing to tackle them) brought the director out of retirement. Now Loach is back with such ferocity that his latest—his last?—also happens to be his best since his Palme d’Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley a decade ago.
Loach sets his 24th feature in a location most Americans will have never even seen on screen: Newcastle upon Tyne, the kind of grey working-class city that UK cinema prefers to forget exists. Through the story of Dave Johns’ Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who runs the gauntlet of Britain’s byzantine welfare program when a heart attack takes him out of work, Loach gives a gut-churning impression of what it’s like to suddenly fall through the cracks in a country that’s lost patience with the less fortunate. The film is almost thriller-like, with a ticking-clock scenario wherein Daniel must overturn the government’s decision to deny him a disability check before his meager savings run out and his health further deteriorates.
Particularly in the film’s first half, before Blake’s desperation truly sets in, Loach tackles Britain’s welfare system in a blackly comic way. He recognizes there’s no other way to approach certain aspects of it than as farce: Daniel must trudge around town handing out CVs in order to claim a “jobseeker’s allowance” even though he’s forbidden by doctors from accepting any work he may actually be offered. When it gets serious, and the film is often gravely so, I, Daniel Blake is wrenching. Following one typically frustrating trip to his local job center, Daniel joins forces with young mother Katie (Hayley Squires), whose benefit payments are slashed when she arrives late to an appointment. Later, in the film’s most affecting scene, Katie is reduced to the humiliation of collecting groceries from a charity “food bank”; having had nothing to eat in days, she instinctively rips open a tin of beans and begins inhaling the dripping contents right there in the building.
Filmed, edited and released to Cannes for viewing in the space of just six months, I, Daniel Blake has an urgency that betrays its director’s 79 years, but can also display the roughness of a rapid production. It isn’t shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan with the care of his best work—Daniel Blake looks positively drab in comparison to American Honey, also lensed by Ryan and released this year—nor does the film bear the poetry of Kes or the character insight of My Name Is Joe, two of Loach’s finest. What makes the film that oft-used but rarely so apt descriptor—important—is that it with laser-focus conveys how agonizing life can be for those that society leaves behind today. If plenty of contemporary movies have been made about people living in poor or fringe surroundings, I, Daniel Blake charts how they got there.
British cinema and TV has lately been happy to retreat to a fake idyllic past, a Poldark and Downton Abbey world of benevolent rich and contented poor. For most people, in the UK and elsewhere, this bears no resemblance to reality. I, Daniel Blake on the other hand will feel familiar to too many. If you want escapism, British cinema offers plenty of it: in 2016 alone there was the magic of The BFG, the underdog japery of Eddie the Eagle and Dad’s Army, the London-centric comedy of Bridget Jones’s Baby and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. If you want reality—if you want an idea, for one, as to how the British people could become so despairing that they would do something as drastic as vote to leave the European Union—see I, Daniel Blake.
Loach can still be an acquired taste. As always, he’s sledgehammer-subtle and his largely non-professional cast can oscillate between staggeringly raw and downright wooden. Hayley Squires is very much the former, a huge find by Loach, but the final monologue he and screenwriter Paul Laverty give to Squires is so on-the-nose as to be redundant, outlining the plight of working Brits as though the previous 90 minutes hadn’t sufficiently done so already. Then there’s another issue: I, Daniel Blake is such a film of and about this moment you suspect it might not age terribly well. Perhaps you’ll even hope it won’t. It would be a blessing to be able to look back on this time capsule five, ten, 20 years from now and feel thankful that things aren’t as utterly hopeless as they used to be. Or at least that they hadn’t gotten any worse.
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Release Date: December 23, 2016