Film Review – I Daniel Blake – by Martin Spence (BECTU)

November 4, 2016

 

Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, has garnered rich and widespread praises – among other things, winning the director an almost-unprecedented second Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It has attracted such plaudits that a childishly perverse part of me almost wants to find fault. But the truth is, I can’t. This is a wonderful and truly humane film, and you should see it.

As with many of Loach’s films, a brief summary of the story makes it sound unbearably bleak. Daniel is a middle-aged Geordie carpenter, recently widowed, and unable to work after suffering a heart attack. Katie is a homeless single mum, forced to uproot her two children from London to Newcastle because it’s the only way she can get a flat. They become allies, trying to navigate their way through a benefits system whose main purpose seems to be to drive claimants to such frustration and despair that they give up and go away.

But this is not a bleak film. Part of the genius of Ken Loach and his long-term writer Paul Laverty is that they find ways to tell stories about big issues through small human details and encounters – mundane, ridiculous, or heart-breaking. Such as Dan’s comical efforts to get to grips with a computer, because the only way to make a claim is to do it online. Or Katie’s humiliation at the food bank, which had me in tears in the cinema (and I wasn’t the only one).

And the other part of Loach’s and Laverty’s genius is the quiet, unremarkable, gentle way in which they reveal the power of simple human acts of care, compassion and solidarity. Dan is driven to frustration by the computer – but the librarian, and the girl sitting at the next table, and the student passing by, all step in to help as best they can. And when Katie breaks down at the food bank, a volunteer who only met her five minutes before takes her in hand, sits her down, looks after her. Ken Loach’s socialism is well-known and unapologetic, and his politics infuses his films, but not in a crude spirit of sloganizing. For Loach, socialism is simply the organised expression of a common human decency which is always present, always around us, and which his films always reveal.

The film works also because of some wonderful acting. There are no big-name stars here. Dave John who plays Daniel works is usually a stand-up comedian; Hayley Squires who plays Katie has film and TV credits to her name but this is her biggest part so far. Both put in extraordinary performances. And the supporting cast is just as good, including those actors charged with portraying the ‘bad guys’, the benefits office staff, the ‘assessors’ and ‘decision-makers’, wielding their petty power with jargon and relish.

By telling its small-scale, personal story, I, Daniel Blake reveals the human costs of ‘austerity’. It’s a film for our time, and it needs to be seen.

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Martin Spence