There is a difference between sadness and misery — an important distinction in the UK, whose book charts have long been dominated by the memoirs of people who have risen from extreme disadvantage to secure a book deal. At the opposite end of the scale is avowed socialist Ken Loach (Jimmy’s Hall), who generally makes painstakingly researched and realistic films that speak to the uncomfortable truths of modern society. I, Daniel Blake tackles a very real problem facing society — the increasingly labyrinthine and unhelpful nature of the welfare system, and its multiple failings. Loach cuts through the clichés that dog the underprivileged and presents an incredibly moving and ultimately human character study.
Middle-aged Daniel Blake (UK stand-up comedian and media personality Dave Johns) is a joiner out of work after a heart attack. Despite his doctor’s declaration that he is unfit, the government believes otherwise and forces him to go job hunting. At the benefits office he meets Katie (Hayley Squires, A Royal Night Out), and forms a friendship with her and her children while they navigate an increasingly indifferent system.
I, Daniel Blake is about a man trying to live with dignity and self-respect in a society that affords him none. Johns plays the man with a quiet gravitas and a deep compassion that permeates the entire film. He has very few demands beyond maintaining his basic humanity, but even that is repeatedly denied him. It’s an affecting performance, and it anchors the film.
More than Johns alone, however, is his rapport with Squires, which is always above board. Squires’ Katie is a woman who has never been given a chance; at least Daniel has had some happiness in his life before his troubles. Squires is the element that allows I, Daniel Blake to be labeled “heartbreaking”, in a completely unexploitative way, providing the two most moving scenes: one with Johns, and one without.
There is nothing sentimental or manipulative about this film. I, Daniel Blake has moments that could become something else in a more “aspirational” movie; Blake is plainly a craftsman, and a different film would have been about a man who becomes incredibly wealthy and takes a poor family under his wing and they all learn how to love. That sort of movie has its place (when it’s not so condescending as that description), but Loach and his longtime writer (Paul Laverty, The Olive Tree) reject that entirely. Any inspiration or humour is derived naturalistically, and I, Daniel Blake is so credible that it is difficult not to be affected by it. Loach is clearly inclined towards socialism — and he clearly has the record to back it up — but he directs in such a matter of fact way that his film feels less like it has an agenda than that it exists to be seen.
I, Daniel Blake is an important social document, and one that’s not so easy to dismiss as leftist whinging by a uninterested bourgeoisie audience. Incredibly well researched, written, directed and performed, I, Daniel Blake refuses to be ignored and spoken down to.
I, Daniel Blake opened in Australian cinemas on November 17, 2016.
Directed by: Ken Loach.
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan and Brian Shann.