I have to tell you about Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake *****. I was utterly floored by this film, heart broken and tearful. It might be Ken’s best film ever, in terms of its simple clarity and power.
We all know how his Cathy Come Home actually brought about political change in the 60s and led to Shelter being set up – well, I think I, Daniel Blake could have a similarly galvanising effect. At least I bloody hope so.
Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old carpenter and widower in Newcastle, recovering from a minor heart attack and therefore laid off work by his doctors. As we join him – played by Dave Johns, in one of those wonderful, one-off Loachian performances unknown actors have been waiting their whole lives to deliver – he’s trapped in the benefits system, the call waiting system, the sheer bureaucracy of form-filling and appointment meeting to register for support or Job Seekers’ Allowance or anything.
The film starts comically, laughing at the Kafka-esque hoops. Soon, it turns into a nightmare as honest, decent Daniel is worn down by the system, a system that Loach proves with alarming logic is designed not to work.
Daniel starts out initially optimistic – why shouldn’t he be? He’s worked all his life, paid his taxes, never asked for anything and has 40 years’ experience and is very good at his job. But the modern world is not for him. He can’t figure out computers and all the forms are online. He is being pushed and squeezed and bullied by the very apparatus which is supposed to save him. Loach is showing how our welfare state has been dismantled, broken and outsourced so that no one can do anything about it.
Daniel befriends a poor young single Mum, Katie, who’s been moved out of London because there are no flats for her there. Shifted with her two young children, she is also being excluded from the system after missing an appointment.
Loach, with his screenwriter Paul Laverty on stunningly direct form, makes us feel the chill, the freezing plight of not having enough money for heating. He shows us – and who else in cinema today would even dare? – a food bank. There’s an extraordinary scene inside it, something I’m sure goes on everyday in Britain and the world, but which I’d never dared imagine.
The pure anger and humanity of this film will stop you in your tracks and, once the tears have dried from our eyes, should make us see clearly that things are very wrong, very wrong, in the world. People are starving, dying and crying and we are ignoring it. But we are, all of us, a hair’s breadth from it. This isn’t just Tory bashing, although they do get it in the face of course -this is aimed at all of us.
I hope it wins the Palme d’Or, because it’s great and mainly because we really need it to. The politicians, the rich, the poor, the bankers and the corporations, the TV shows, not even The Daily Mail could ignore it then.