By Eugene Smith
Ken Loach is a director best known for gritty social realism and ardent left-wing ideals. He has won not only plaudits and a bucket-load of awards – including two Palme d’Ors at Cannes and, most recently, an Auteur Award at the 24th Raindance Film Festival in London – but also a fair few enemies amongst the right-wing press and so-called ‘Blairite’ wing of the Labour Party.
The eighty-year old this year came out of a short-lived retirement to direct I, Daniel Blake, a scathing portrait of Britain’s benefits system, and it didn’t win the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival for nothing; flashes of humour, strong central performances and a tear-jerking climax come together to ensure that the strings of even the hardest of hearts are not only tugged, but positively ripped out.
The plot centres on the eponymous Dan, an out-of-work Geordie carpenter recovering from a recent heart attack, as he attempts to navigate the excruciating bureaucracy of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to secure an Employment and Support Allowance. As he is relentlessly rebutted by the coldly efficient staff of his local job centre, Dan befriends an unemployed single mother-of-two, and the elderly widower finds strength in the pair’s developing companionship.
The film succeeds in transforming its subject matter – largely one of mundanity, drudgery and despair – into a heart-warming and ultimately heart-breaking ode to human kindness. Paul Laverty’s screenplay is tightly compelling, and Loach’s directing style is, as always, effective in its simplicity, seeking only to capture the subtleties of his characters’ interactions. The narrative is all the better for it, as the absence of clean-cut scene transitions and flashy landscape shots enables a truer and earthier immersion in the travails of Daniel Blake, the people’s protagonist.
This stoic hero of the piece is convincingly played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns, whose comic background does bring a refreshing cheek to the character – he squeezes in a number of genuine belly-laugh one-liners – yet it does not dent Johns’ full-blooded evocation of his character’s underlying pathos.
Another strong performance comes from Hayley Squires, portraying a beleaguered Londoner relocated up north by the state for the sake of cheaper rent. Squires’ aura of resolute determination secures the sympathy of the audience within minutes of her arrival on screen.
The primary purpose of the film is to move the audience, perhaps into action, and it would be very difficult to argue that it fails in this regard. To momentarily stray into the dangerous territory of anecdote, at the most iconic of the film’s handful of climactic set-pieces, the audience at the Preview Screening at which your reviewer saw the film broke out into rapturous applause. Sitting amongst this crowd, it was hard not to feel warmed by a sense of solidarity with this humble yet dignified victim of the system.
No film, of course, is without its flaws, and I, Daniel Blake’s intensity is fleetingly compromised by the occasional stiff performance from the supporting cast. It is a minor gripe, but whilst both Johns and Squires are overwhelmingly believable, the impact of the film does suffer from a handful of unconvincing minor characters who undermine the social realism of the film’s background.
Surprisingly, though, the child actors of the film are perfectly competent in their prominent supporting roles. It does seem as if Loach has always had an eye for young acting talent: the 14-year old lead of the director’s 1969 breakthrough Kes won many plaudits for his spirited performance, as did the 19-year old star of 2002’s celebrated coming-of-age feature Sweet Sixteen.
At a time when traditional socialism is beginning to once again encroach on the mainstream of British political discourse, this film could hardly feel more current and relevant. Though many may not necessarily agree with Loach’s ideology, or his recently-stated conviction that the DWP is “encouraging suicide” and “using hunger as a weapon to control people,” there is no doubt that watching this film is immeasurably likely to soften any audience member’s view of the unemployed.
Failing that, it will at least make their eyes water and throat lumpen – it certainly did mine.
I, Daniel Blake will open in cinemas from October 21st.
Photograph: Courtesy of Entertainment One.