Back in May, it looked a lot like the summer of Ken Loach. The Palme d’Or victory was closely followed by the release of career retrospective Versus and the rerelease of 1967’s Poor Cow, titles that spoke to a lifelong commitment to championing social change. Thereafter, the quiet man of British cinema was rather drowned out: the angry Right sounded a huffy retreat from Europe, setting the liberal-left into noisy infighting. I, Daniel Blake – for which Loach won that Cannes prize – now reappears as a rallying flag: a salutary reminder of what so many are facing today.
You could call it I, Josef K, such is the bureaucracy in which the eponymous Dan (Dave Johns), a Newcastle carpenter recovering from a heart attack, finds himself entangled. He’s not fit for work, yet the State has him three points shy of the threshold required to claim health benefits; Jobseekers’ Allowance has him looking for gigs he hasn’t the stamina to take on. Crucially, he’s not a scrounger: rather an ordinary bloke with skill and evident civic pride, obliged to jump through hoops for a handful of coins, and made to feel like an abject failure for doing so.
That Loach and his regular writing collaborator Paul Laverty should care to dramatise a sinking feeling millions – including, at points, this reviewer – have known all too well makes I, Daniel Blake an important film, yet it’s not a flawless one: Dan himself might find the joisting a little rough-hewn in places, though its makers would doubtless point to this as proof of the finished product’s authenticity.
Some of the non-pros drafted in as supporting players can seem wobbly, and while Johns, Loach’s latest recruit from the stand-up circuit, looks canny enough to know how to insulate a home using bubblewrap, you sense him nervily feeling his way into this new performance arena. There’s a marked contrast with fellow debutant Hayley Squires, who grabs the screen from the very first moment we see her relocated single mother Katie kicking off bigtime in the jobcentre.
More often than not, though, these scenes from the class struggle explode into life of one form or another. Loach and Laverty have an unfailing knack of imbuing their creations with dignity, pride and a humour that varies from bolshy to wounded, depending on the circumstances: to a neighbour who’s spotted him moving cardboard boxes out of his less-than-palatial flat, Dan quips “I’m off to the Bahamas.” (Byker is as far as he gets.)
The effect is to draw us further into this social stratum, and deeper down into the characters’ plight. For the first time, a filmmaker takes us inside the much-reported food banks, and inspecting their doomy nuclear-bunker-meets-church-social ambiance, we’re left wondering how it is we’ve been brought so low (guzzling baked beans direct from the tin) so quickly. Then again, the options opening up for these characters in the outside world – crime, prostitution, alcoholism – are flatly terrible.
Pointedly, cinematographer Robbie Ryan has none of the freedom he was granted in the recent American Honey, set instead to describing the neutral-grey tones of the bureaucratic drablands Dan and Katie struggle within. Yet certain other formal choices underline that we’re watching a master at work, one who knows exactly what this story represents: one brilliant, tragicomic cut from a careers advisor’s big spiel on smartphone CVs to Dan’s uncompromising expression is eloquent indeed on how the labour market has changed, and not necessarily for the better.
At every turn, Loach’s humanism – his total commitment to the specifics of the situations his characters find themselves in – transcends all other political labels. Whether you’re to the left or right of Jeremy Corbyn, whether you voted Leave or Remain (and it’s just possible Dan, like many across the depressed North-East, voted to go), here is a film that sets out, very starkly, what 99% of us are now up against. Rally around it and get angry (angrier?), because the alternative – resigning ourselves to dying in the streets like dogs – is, even for this moment in time, too awful to contemplate.
(MovieMail, October 2016)
I, Daniel Blake is available on DVD through eOne from Monday.