I, Daniel Blake
Director: Ken Loach.
Screenplay: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy, Briana Shann, Dylan McKeirnan, Stephen Clegg, Kate Rutter, Malcolm Shields, Kema Sikazwe, Jane Birch, Micky McGregor.
“When you lose your self respect, you’re done for”
After Looking For Eric, The Angels’ Share and Jimmy’s Hall I think it’s fair to say that Ken Loach, in his twilight years, wasn’t quite as hard-hitting as the reputation that preceded him. In fact, two films inbetween these – Route Irish and It’s a Free World – where largely ignored all together. You’d have to go back to 2006 and his politically charged, Irish revolutionary drama The Wind that Shakes the Barley, to find quintessential Loach. Now though, he returns with another political drama in I, Daniel Blake and it’s one of his most potent and important films.
Plot: After a heart attack leaves him unable to work, widowed carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is forced to apply for state welfare. However, the system is designed to make it difficult for him to receive any support at all. Throughout his ordeal, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother who finds herself in a similar situation, while trying to raise and feed her children. Together, they try to rise above the indignity of the governments extreme ‘austerity’ measures.
In 2014 (directly after Jimmy’s Hall) Loach decided to announce his retirement from filmmaking. It was crushing news from one of the most passionate political voices in British cinema. Not to say that there isn’t other talents who tackle similar projects and important social issues in film (Shane Meadows and Mike Leigh spring to mind) but there really isn’t anyone quite like Ken Loach. In keeping with his socialist views – before he said farewell – he allowed all of his filmography to be available for free via YouTube. However, his retirement lasted just over a year before he stated his intent to come back and make a film on the British welfare system and the Tory government’s barbaric treatment of the most vulnerable people in society.
Loach obviously felt that this was a story that needed to be told. And it is. In fact, this film has been so effective that it was even raised and commented on in the Houses of Parliament, itself. Naturally, the Tory MP’s lambasted it for being unfair (oh, the irony!) or for failing to accurately depict the “decency” of those that work with the Department of Work and Pensions – the very foot soldiers of the Govt who have been imposing such harsh penalties and sanctions on the average working class or disabled person. Methinks the Tories protest too much and, in actual fact, Loach has hit a very raw nerve. Those that work in the DWP may claim that they’re only doing their job but really they’re just whores of the state that are facilitating nothing less than a fascist regime.
“Work Will Set You Free” a slogan that was once used by the Nazi’s above the gates of Auschwitz. This is the very ideology of Tory Britain in our current times: Don’t have a job? – Tough shit! Poverty on the rise? – Fuck That! Using foodbanks to eat? – Fuck You!… I think you get the gist. Put simply, the lower classes, the sick and the disabled are seen as parasites to a dulled-down, media-controlled society that perpetuates and excuses a ruthless right-wing government. A government full of toffs that wouldn’t know how to walk without a silver spoon up their arse and are blatantly happy giving tax breaks to corporations and their greedy wee cronies.
Social justice has always been a recurring theme throughout Loach’s films and here his voice on the matter is ferociously loud and clear. I, Daniel Blake is a scathing indictment on the government and their complete lack of empathy towards its own citizens.
As is often the case, his films capture a raw authenticity. There’s a stark reality to this that almost feels like a documentary. He has a real ability to focus on everyday people living in everyday situations. Even if you left aside the political commentary, you’d still find that Loach has crafted a genuinely touching human drama. Ultimately, this is a story about dignity, self-respect and injustice.
The film is anchored by two excellent central performances; normally known for stand-up comedy, Dave Johns as the titular character delivers solid work in his film debut but it’s Hayley Squires as the single mother of two who finds herself in some devastating circumstances that truly captures your heart. For all it’s unapologetic candidness, however, it also has a surprising amount of humour. To manage this, with such a bleak subject matter, only reaffirms Loach’s ability to capture every aspect of life. Despite the hardships and the barbarism that people face on the lower echelons of society, there’s is still a humanity that shines through.
Loach has always championed the browbeaten, lower classes and his work in I, Daniel Blake (at the age of 80) shows that the fire in his soul hasn’t wained a bit. Like Daniel Blake himself, he’s a true voice for inequality and the dispossessed. For an understanding of how cruel our government and society has fast become, this is essential viewing.
Trivia: At the Cannes premiere (for which it won the Palme d’Or) Ken Loach and his team were greeted with a rapturous 15-minute standing ovation after the official screening of the film.