I, Daniel Blake: review

Daniel Blake, a contemporary hero

Daniel Blake, a contemporary hero

Ken Loach’s award winning drama I, Daniel Blake is currently showing at FACT, Getintothis’ Del Pike gives his opinion on this most important of British films.

When a Ken Loach film arrives it’s an event that can’t be ignored, particularly when it brings the accolade of his latest release, I, Daniel Blake. The Palm d’or winner, the story of a Newcastle carpenter stopped in his tracks by a heart attack and at the mercy of 21st century British bureaucracy, it’s heartbreaking in the extreme and recalls earlier works Ladybird, Ladybird, Poor Cow and Cathy Come Home. This is vintage Loach.

Loach himself is something of a vintage, directing still at 79 and remaining as on point as ever when dealing with the experiences of people that he presumably has not had to suffer in many a decade.

Blake, played beautifully by stand up comedian Dave Johns, faces the everyday trials of Britain’s working classes and unemployed, dealing with faceless box ticking and assessment in order to survive. If the film tells us anything it is that we could all be just a step away from losing everything. One bout of illness, one missed payday, one wrongly completed government form can lead to an impossible spiral of destruction.

In the simplest of terms Daniel is a nice guy, and it takes seconds to like his character. Ten minutes in and we feel like we’ve known him for years. This is one of Loach’s auteur traits that has worked for him again and again; his ability to create characters we can completely sympathise with.

Using a comedian is an inspired way to create an easy to connect with character, the warmth is already there, we have already seen this with the use of Chrissy Rock in the lead role of Ladybird, Ladybird. A film that was more a trial by fire than a cinematic experience.

The film opens in darkness, allowing us to listen in on that first vital telephone conversation between Daniel and a privatised medical assessor, determining whether or not he is fit to return to work. This is the trigger that leads to his battle to make sense of the ridiculous nature of our nation’s current protocol. The suppressed humour of Daniel’s dialogue is sparse relief from the momentous trauma of his ordeal.

Daniel’s new found life as one of Cameron / May’s millions is given meaning by a chance encounter at the dole office with Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum with two kids just up from London and facing similar difficulties in gaining benefits. A relationship builds with the older Daniel taking on the role of a surrogate Dad / Grandad, helping out seemingly unaware that he needs help too. Further support comes from his neighbour, a young wheeler dealer and his mates who also add some comic relief but turn in uncharacteristically wooden performances for a Loach film.

Whilst the film may seem a little idealistic as Daniel and Katie face just about every trial associated with the struggle to survive in austerity Britain, these moments are delivered in perfectly crafted vignettes. An agonising episode in a food bank is perhaps the most telling snapshot of the issues our government sorely needs to tackle, and whilst not necessarily based on a true story as such, the film tells a million true stories by default in each difficult episode.

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There are some tender moments of respite, intrinsically crafted into the narrative. Loach introduces a motif of fish bobbing aimlessly about with no direction in the wooden mobiles that Daniel creates for Katie’s children. There is a suggestion that these same fish helped Dan to cope with his late wife’s ongoing illness, which heightens the need for him to feel a part of a family as much as part of a wider society, as well as suggesting that the unemployed hordes are just as anonomous as the fish in the sea. This human element, like so many in the film help us to identify with those folk on the street who could just as easily be ignored.

Loach plays a gambit by including a scene, signposted in the promotional materials for the film that is a rallying cry to Britain’s downtrodden and attempts to make an heroic example of his character, and this is very much a reflection of the attitudes of a certain recently arrived Labour leader who I can only imagine would wholly embrace and endorse the principles of this film.

It’s a difficult but vital watch and an accurate portrayal of where we live right now. It is also a reminder of what a national treasure Loach is. So many films have been produced since his golden Kes / Cathy era, and each one is a damning indictment on not just our government but international powers and domestic demons. As long as we have artists like Loach, cinema will have a conscience and talents like Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and to an extent Shane Meadows will be allowed room to speak and be heard.

I, Daniel Blake is currently showing at FACT and quite simply, demands to be seen.