Film Review: I, Daniel Blake

Director: Ken Loach
15 | 1h 40min | Drama | 21 October 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Director Ken Loach’s political views are so far to the left that he considers the Labour Party itself to be a construct designed to betray the working classes, so you can just imagine what he thinks of the current Tory government and its ‘long term plan’ for the British economy and welfare state. In fact, Loach was apparently driven by rage at the skeletal nature of today’s benefits system to come out of retirement just to make I, Daniel Blake, which, like his seminal Cathy Come Home from 50 years ago, is designed to be an urgent address about the state of the nation. It is not subtle in the slightest, and has been made against a rather ironic backdrop: the increasing refusal of the working classes to revolt and embrace the kind of left wing politics that Loach espouses (Loach’s favoured politician, Labour’s hard left backbencher-turned-leader Jeremy Corbyn, is currently facing a double digit poll deficit against a Tory government hoovering up UKIP voters). But it also showcases many of Loach’s greatest strengths: a narrative infused with passionate rage against injustice, great performances teased from a non-professional cast, and a keen eye to the dynamics of how groups of the marginalised can come together to mutually support one another. 

Thus watching the struggle of the titular Daniel Blake(a superb turn from comedian Daniel Johns) - a friendly 59-year-old blue collar joiner who is unable to work due to bad health - becomes in Loach’s hands a truly compelling, and unnerving experience. The Kafka-esque dilemma Daniel falls into following his semi-debilitating stroke is infuriating in its unfairness - which is laid out for us in painstaking detail (just wince at Daniel trying to learn how to use the internet so he can access online-only government services) - but also quite chilling given anyone who has picked up a newspaper over the last five years will know the film’s scenario bears the ring of authenticity. It is easy to imagine a real life Daniel Blake is out there, struggling, right now. 

Daniel is facing a Catch-22 the devil himself could have devised, if only the Department of Work and Pensions hadn’t got there first. Urged by his doctor to cease work to prevent developing a life-threatening arrhythmia, Daniel is, ironically, too honest at answering questions to ensure that his benefit officer rates him as inform enough to be deserving of benefits while he recuperates. The mysterious, never-seen and Orwellian-sounding ‘decision maker’ at the welfare office thus overrides the doctor’s report and refuses to award benefits. Daniel thus has to be seen to look for a job after years of never having to conceive of such a task, although he cannot accept any work offered anyway. It’s an absurd predicament that should scare anyone who has ever wondered if they might be close to falling into obsolescence by the standards of today’s work culture, but Loach also offers a shot of humour and hope by way of Daniel’s encounter and growing relationship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a fiery single mother struggling with the same bureaucracy, one that has posted her halfway across the country to a Newcastle council home to save costs, and sanctions her simply for being slightly late to review sessions. Their relationship, built on a mutual search for hope and dignity, is well-realised via the script and naturalistic performances, and makes I,Daniel Blake so much more than just a scream of anger. It is a very straightforward, totally irony-free demand for your attention that shows Loach isn't done causing trouble yet.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.