If I, Daniel Blake is to be Ken Loach’s last film, then he can certainly be proud of bringing his distinguished brand of social-realist cinema full circle. Working from a script written by long-term collaborator Paul Laverty, Loach diligently distils the leftist political ideals representative of his entire oeuvre here. What’s troubling though, is that after 50 years of saying the same thing, his voice appears weak; no longer resonating with the authority it once had.
Directly mirroring Cathy Come Home, his magnificent Wednesday Play from 1966, Loach again focuses his attention on the devastating injustices felt by many forced to make claims from the British welfare state. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle aged carpenter living in Newcastle, who has spent his life ensuring he has given the State everything it has asked for, but now he needs something from them. Following a sudden heart attack that nearly saw him fall from a scaffold, Dan has been ruled as unfit for work by a number of doctors, and therefore requires financial benefits from the Government if he is to keep hold of what little he has.
As Daniel soon finds out though, trying to obtain money from the State can be about as easy as getting blood from a stone. A terrific early sequence listens in as he is quizzed by one of the Government’s privately contracted Healthcare professionals, who will decide whether he’s worthy enough to receive help. Frustrated and considerably flummoxed, he answers questions that focus solely on his physical capabilities with a growing anxiety; “are you able to lift your arm above your head as if to put on a hat?” asks the interviewer with a prickly seriousness – it’s instinctively infuriating, and yet the grouchy demeanour of likeable first-time film actor Dave Johns provides a much-needed glaze of humour.
With his application for support rejected, Dan finds himself down the job centre, having to contend with state representatives who resolutely trust in the false division of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’. There he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who, after living for a couple of years in a London homeless hostel while waiting for a council flat, finds herself forced to live in a city 300 miles away from everyone she knows. She too has been abandoned by those supposedly employed to help them, and soon the pair form a bond, both determined to make it through the bureaucratic minefield of Britain’s benefits system.
Loach won the Palme d’Or back in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes The Barley, which continues to be one of the director’s finest films to date. There he proved himself able to be politically charged without relying on a preachy rhetoric. Here, however, his vociferous moralising is misjudged, and numbs the script’s significance.
Apparently working in auto drive, with DP Robbie Ryan relied upon to add harsh shades of grime to the picture, Loach’s typically didactic direction is less of a despairing cry for help, and more a lecture delivered by an orator who’s solely determined to reiterate the same single argument over and over again until we’re practically begging them for mercy. Admittedly, certain scenes do devastate: Hayley Squires mines heartbreaking moments of misery from Katie’s story – a visit to a food bank captures the hopeless desperation of life lived on the breadline with a stark brutality that eschews emotional manipulation.
What the film ultimately lacks though, is a keener comprehension of its combustible content. As you would no doubt expect, the esteemed auteur has done his research, but he hasn’t stopped to consider how well certain strands translate to the screen. Daniel Blake represents a generation struggling to have their voice heard within our society right now: while John Miller’s grotty Golden Years played such pain and uncertainty for laughs, Loach should have seized upon it, as he did back in ’66. Instead, by the time we reach a futile finale that many are likely to have predicted before they even enter the auditorium, it appears that he no longer has the vehemence to tackle such volatile material. It pains to say it, but a subject so important deserves better!
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty (screenplay)
Stars: Natalie Ann Jamieson, Colin Coombs, Dave Johns
Runtime: 100 min
Country: UK, France
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