I, Daniel Blake is the latest Palme d’Or film directed by Ken Loach, one of my personal favourite filmmakers. I am a big fan of Kes, Looking For Eric and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. As a director Loach is much more interested in telling a story, rather than capturing our attention with anything that could ever be considered cinematic flair. That’s probably intentional to allow us to focus solely on the characters and their stories. This style might be a problem for some cinephiles but to me, I think the almost documentarian approach to his filmmaking allows the voice of his protagonists and stories to resonate with a greater sense of profundity. Which is important when you consider whose voices Loach often seeks out. The voice of the poor, the voice of the vulnerable, and those marginalized and often forgotten by society. Voices, which are brought to life with great authenticity with the help of frequent collaborator Paul Laverty who penned the screenplay for I, Daniel Blake.
When a movie like I, Daniel Blake comes along that essentially acts as a form of reaffirming my own ideologies, it becomes important to an extent to distance myself from that aspect of it and instead judge the work by the same standards I would any other film, and not solely as a political rallying call. Luckily I, Daniel Blake is good old fashioned storytelling in its own right.
We follow the character of the same name played by Dave Jones. Who is a middle-aged carpenter who requires state benefit after suffering a massive heart attack before the film began. The film opens with Daniel getting assessed by a “so-called” health expert appointed by a private company, who turns down his application for out-of-work sickness benefit employment and support allowance. This despite his own doctor already deeming him unfit to work. The camera focusing on a flabbergasted Daniel as a faceless voice delivers the news that someone simply known as the decision maker will decide his whole future.
I, Daniel Blake in that moment captures the true detached nature of iniquitous actions, as rules, regulations red tape, different departments and structures erode any sense of humanity or responsibility that someone would have to be held accountable for. We have all been reduced to numbers on a form and the sum of that information. In the same spirit of movies like Bicycle Thieves and A Better Life, I, Daniel Blake is built around a simple task. The whole movie is centred around the trials and tribulations of Daniel trying to get approved for sickness benefit and his dealings with the job centre. The movie almost plays like a tragic odyssey at times as Dan struggles with using computers, filling out form after form or kept on hold on the phone for hours on end. Now the film isn’t all doom and gloom, it’s often laugh out loud funny and the harrowing situations are often accompanied by biting whit.
In the cinema I viewed I, Daniel Blake in, the audience were often in hysterics as I sat there in disgust at the all too familiar situations Daniel was subjected to. Don’t get me wrong they were still funny moments but I was too involved with Daniel’s plight by that point to hear laughter, and that’s to the film’s credit.
There are other supporting characters as well that add to the complexities of the story. A single mother who moves up from London to escape a homeless hostel is played brilliantly by Hayley Squires. Now this is where a few of my minor issues with I, Daniel Blake started to emerge. Ken Loach is obviously a well-known political activist and of great moral principle, a principle I’m on board with like I mentioned. There is nothing wrong with having your message in your movies, that’s one of the things I love about Loach after all, that and he almost manages to do it without it feeling like a political broadcast, he exposes you to something rather than dictating to you how you should feel which is a bonus. However sometimes when you try and show too much of something, in too little of a time frame through a small spectrum of characters, it can blunt the impact and feel a bit like overkill. I’m not saying that these things didn’t all happen, I know for a fact that they do but narratively speaking when you try and compact it all into one character’s specific story it can make some elements feel very forced. This is felt particularly in the film’s later stages, which felt a bit forced.
That aside I, Daniel Blake is still a must see slice of life movie that’s sure to stir some powerful emotions with its audiences.
Originally published on Oct 21, 2016 for UK Film Review.
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, and Briana Shann