Ken Loach has been making unashamedly political, socially aware films for decades, and his latest, I, Daniel Blake, finds him dealing with the relationship between the British government and its citizens, told mainly through interactions with the bureaucratic Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It’s a film brimming with frustration and anger told in a purposefully restrained manner.
The film is written by regular Loach contributor Paul Laverty and focuses on two down-on-their-luck individuals: Daniel Blake, a widower who has suffered issues with his heart and is trying to claim Employment and Support Allowance until he is fit enough to return to work; and Katie, a young mother of two who is forced to move to Newcastle, where the film is set, because it’s the only place she can get a flat for her family.
A companionship develops between these two characters that highlights the importance of community – something increasingly diminished in our times. Daniel is happy to help struggling Katie because he’s a good man with social values, even despite his own increasingly worsening circumstances. On paper the character of Daniel may look too saintly to work, but that is not the case thanks to Laverty’s sharp writing and the excellent performance of Dave Johns, who brings warmth and dignity and makes Daniel feel real. The same is true of Hayley Squires’ performance as Katie – a terrifically strong and understated turn as somebody whose life is spiralling out of control but is fighting to hold it all together. In fact, Squires gets the most affecting and difficult scene in the film, in a food bank, and really makes it work.
Loach directs the film in pleasingly uncomplicated fashion, capturing honestly the sense of decent people being mistreated by the state in a system that has warped from a safety net into something punitive. The film captures brilliantly the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy and the soulless corporate ethos that sucks the humanity out of human interactions. Audiences around the UK will surely empathise with Daniel’s disbelief at the systems he comes up against, and it’s important to note that Loach and his team researched the film heavily, with input from people who were in or had been in the system, and whistleblowers from within the DWP. Most of what we see in the film reflects real life, in some instances is directly taken from it, and the film has a sense of authenticity that is not easy to capture.
There are one or two moments when I felt the script was a little too forthright in its emoting, and some elements of the drama feel a tad sidelined because of the structure, in particular Katie’s third-act attempt to make money and the film’s powerful but brief den ouement, but overall I found I, Daniel Blake to be a powerful, important piece of work that sheds light on the treatment of decent people by an increasingly dehumanised state.