Ken Loach may not always be to your political taste but there’s no denying his film-making power and importance.
He was confirmed in the cinematic pantheon when his latest film in a 50-year career, I, Daniel Blake, earned the director his second Palme d’Or at Cannes last May, much to my delight as you may recall.
With its story of a Newcastle joiner looking for work but stuck in the bureaucratic nightmare of the benefits system, it may sound like typical Loach, but seeing it again now, it’s one of his very best films: urgent, vital, angry, heartbreaking, funny, empathetic and deeply, deeply concerned with the parlous state of our nation and its citizens.
And this is what’s key about I, Daniel Blake. So often, Loach’s films (many of which I’ve loved) feel that they’re about people miles away from me – railway workers, miners, alcoholic Scots, teenage junkies, dockers, homeless women or even asylum seekers, political exiles, Irish revolutionaries, Sandinistas or fighters in the Spanish Civil War. I don’t know these people, although Loach’s remarkable gift for realism and humanism has always made me feel as if do, by the end of the films.
But you can feel the breath and the bite of this new one from the start, its chill wind blowing on your cheeks and down your street. Daniel Blake is a chap you might know. He’s a joiner, a widower who, at 59, has just had a mild heart attack which has seen him signed off work for a few weeks, probably for the first time in over 40 years of honest labour in the yards of Newcastle.
He’s a funny, decent man, but now the system is playing him for a fool. He’s flustered by online forms, made to feel out-of-time by computers (“A cursor? Well, that’s a bloody apt name for it, aye”) and out-of-luck by CV workshops. You’ll not see Daniel Blake, with 40 years of experience, sending in a CV video via his smartphone.
The automatons who work at the job centre are no help. Nor can they be, constrained as they are by rules, jargon (“You should receive a call from the decision maker shortly,”) and intractable processes practically forcing – encouraging? – them to apply sanctions which squeeze people like Daniel ever further into the margins.
Of course, Daniel starts out bold and brave. “They’ve picked a fight with the wrong man, I can tell you,” he says, but soon even he feels the pressure and the damp seeps into his bones.
We feel it with him. The pain, the fluster, the sick worry is written on comedian Dave Johns’s face playing the lead. As the film’s brilliant opening credits show with merely a black screen, he’s faced with a system that doesn’t get jokes or make allowances for anomalies, human fallibilities and feelings.
The other layer here comes when Daniel meets a single mother, Katie (superbly played by Hayley Squires, like a bird with a broken wing) who has been shunted up North by the housing system which no longer has room for her near her family in London.
The pair strike up an oddly tender relationship – Daniel helps her with repairs in her house and with baby sitting; she gives him family and purpose.
It is Squires’ Katie who provides the film’s most extraordinary scene, set inside a food bank, outside which the queue stretches around the block. It’s a shock to see this in modern Britain and even more troubling once we get inside – only Ken Loach would dream of shooting in such a location and only he could bring out the very real truth of it. Your heart cracks along with Katie’s as she sobs with hunger and shame: “If my Mum could see me…”
I know, I know. I’m making it sound grim. Well, it is grim out there, says the movie. But that’s what’s so genius about I, Daniel Blake. It isn’t grim to watch. It burns, it crackles, it makes you laugh and seethe, makes you feel the frustration and the needlessness. It is so unadorned by stars, conventions, effects or film maker fuss, that it arrows straight to the point, to the heart of our society. If there’s a human being who can argue with this film’s passion and ideals, I don’t want to meet them.
Something is wrong out there in Britain. People are poor, hungry, starving and hurting. And we all know it. It just takes Ken Loach and I, Daniel Blake to prove it, to show us exactly how the news and the politics are affecting real people, people in our street, people we know.
It breaks your heart yet stokes your flames. Love and dignity are being flushed from our world and compassion is a fading commodity.
I, Daniel Blake is, quite simply, a masterpiece, a blast of modern movie realism, the rare sort of film no one can afford to miss. Because we are all Daniel Blake.