I, Daniel Blake
Time Out says
Veteran director Ken Loach is back with a moving tragedy about the failings of modern Britain.
Britain’s Ken Loach makes films infused with quiet but righteous anger about the failings of society. I, Daniel Blake is the story of an unlikely but tender friendship between Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother from London with two kids, and Dan (Dave Johns), a salt-of-the-earth carpenter in his late fifties who’s out of work and recovering from a heart attack.
There are no histrionics here, no crowd-pleasing gestures, barely any score: Loach tells his tale straight and with the confidence of someone who knows he has a story to tell, with no need for bells and whistles. It’s a spare film, muted in color and unflashy, and all the more powerful for it.
Both Katie and Dan are feeling the sharp end of the shrinking welfare state: Katie has been forced to move her children north to Newcastle to find an apartment; Dan is stuck in a nightmarish bureaucratic limbo between work, illness and benefits. “We’re digital by default,” a job-center worker tells this man who’s never used a computer, pointing him toward yet another online form. The language of impersonal bureaucracy runs throughout the film. It’s blackly comic until it begins to sound threatening, even deadly.
Loach compassionately sketches the growing humiliation felt by both Dan and Katie; forces beyond both are turning them into different people. Dan is community-minded, gentle, a laugh. At first, he’s able to criticize, even mock the system that’s crushing him. The tragedy of the film—and its rousing point—is that in the end, it’s all too much for one man. Dan, and people like him everywhere, need a Katie watching their back; they need a community, a benevolent government. Katie is proud and outwardly composed—so much so that the film’s most devastating scene comes when she lets her mask slip in public during a visit to a food bank.
In style, I, Daniel Blake is perhaps Loach’s most unassuming, straightforward film since 2001’s The Navigators. It goes in for the kill almost meekly. Like almost all of Loach’s films of the past 20 years, it’s written by Paul Laverty, and there are small moments which betray his keen researcher’s nose, like the tactics used to keep an unheated property warm (bubble wrap on the windows; candle-powered improvised heaters). A subplot about Dan’s younger neighbor selling iffy Chinese goods feels a touch superfluous (another detail surely picked up in research), but this is mostly a film with a clear-headed and undiluted mission. It shares its purpose with some humor and a whole load of passion and fury.
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Funny, heart warming, heart-breaking and tragic, this film follows the plight of 2 people caught within the catch-22 abyss of work, health, education and benefits - passing damning judgement upon the fundamentally flawed system in the UK.
On its own that still wouldn’t necessarily drive a compelling story but it’s the regular moments of humour, kindness and connection that keep you engaged. It’s not perfect - and could do with being about 10 minutes shorter as it does drag in a few places - and the kids for some inexplicable reason are straight out of stage school and feel very out of place with their middle-class accents amongst the Geordies and alongside their East-end mother.
However Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are perfectly cast and brilliant in the lead roles.
All in all I enjoyed this much more than I expected and it was far less ‘worthy’ than other Ken Loach efforts.
The (no big Hollywood) ending really stays with you and gives a much needed third perspective on a normally polarising issue.