Director: Ken Loach
It’s sobering to think it’s nearly 50 years since ‘Poor Cow’ – featuring the dubious talents of one-time Led Zeppelin enforcer John ‘Biffo’ Bindon, a man so unpredictably violent even the notorious Peter Grant considered him a liability – introduced the unapologetically political filmmaker Ken Loach to the world.
What’s even more astounding is the fact that after half a century and numerous films portraying life in Britain, Loach’s work continues to represent a view of the country which is resolutely unjust, inequitable and painful to watch.
Such is the case with ‘I, Daniel Blake’, a movie which follows the plight of the titular character, a middle-aged carpenter who, after suffering a serious heart attack, is given the run around by a bureaucratic welfare system deliberately designed to discourage claimants through a combination of obtuse form filling and ritual humiliation.
Unable to access the sickness payment his Doctor has recommended, due to not scoring enough ‘points’ in an interview with a so called health professional, Dan is forced to justify his Job Seekers Allowance application by proving he is actually looking for work, despite there being little employment available and no work he could realistically do without seriously exacerbating his health.
Loach’s films don’t rely on complicated plots; rather it’s the characterisation and use of non professional actors which usually provide flavour and so it is here. In the lead role is Dave Johns, better known as a stand up comedian, who nonetheless delivers a magnificent, heartfelt performance as Dan, a moral, righteous and actually quite funny man drowning in a sea of red-tape. Equally good is the younger but more experienced Hayley Squires as Katie, the single parent Dan befriends after meeting her in a Job Centre where both are summarily ejected for the heinous crime of arguing for a fair hearing.
In accordance with Loach’s 50 year oeuvre, ‘I Daniel Blake’ is no easy watch, even though as both Dan and Katie are ground down by an unfeeling (and unseen) force represented by civil servants bound by the fear of losing their own jobs, there are genuine moments of laugh out loud humour. Told to go online to register an application, the non computer literate Dan responds to the adage, ‘digital by default’, with the genuinely funny line: ‘Yeah? Well I’m pencil by default’.
Critics of Loach’s work – and there are a few, currently represented by right wing media mouthpiece Toby Young – point to predictable aspects of the plot – and some of the story development is admittedly eminently foreseeable and slightly clunky. The consequences of Katie’s forays into the black economy can be seen a mile off for example as a very unsubtle McGuffin leads to a scene involving the two leads which came across to me at any rate, as being more than a bit contrived.
Another sub plot involving Dan’s neighbour selling hooky trainers is also bog standard stuff but at least it leads to a good laugh. During a Skype conversation with the Chinese supplier who turns out to be a huge football fan, ‘Stanley’ is asked who he thinks is the best player in the Premier League. To general amusement, he replies, ‘Charlie Adam, Stoke City’, the least glamorous player in EPL history and the scorer of the best goal ever by a bloke who looks like a bus driver.
These two plot diversions are more than compensated by a quite brilliant set-piece in a foodbank which is singularly the most moving scene I’ve watched in years. Perfectly shot and expertly captured it’s simply outstanding and worth the price of admission in its own right.
Without giving away the denouement, anyone with any pre Loach nous will know there’s no chance of any happy ending here, even though Dan’s personal fightback, such as it is, is stirring and heart-rending in almost equal measure.
I watched the movie in an otherwise empty Melbourne cinema and at the conclusion, sat in isolated stunned silence as the credits rolled and the lights came up, profoundly moved as I truly believe anyone, regardless of their own political beliefs would be. It’s that good.
In a time where frustration and disillusionment with traditional political non-solutions seem to be provoking a reliance on desperate, impractical measures, the integral message in ‘I Daniel Blake’ isn’t so much about answers as it is about humanity.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Any of Loach’s previous. Or any work of substance.