For more than 50 years, Ken Loach has been making social-realist dramas tied together by a prevailing thread — the compassionate observation of the struggles of the working class to hold onto such fundamental dignities as a home, a job and food on the table within a hostile system that often views them unfairly as the cause of their own misfortunes. His latest feature, I, Daniel Blake, is quintessential Loach, which means you have a good idea of what you’re getting as soon as the core elements are established. And yet while the framework and perspective are familiar, the veteran Brit director’s films can still have the power to grip us in an emotional chokehold.
That’s very much the case in Loach’s latest Cannes competition entry, despite a script by his longtime collaborator Paul Laverty that at times wades into didactic pandering, hammering home in dialogue points about a callous State that are already embedded in the story. The tendency to pile indignation upon indignation almost risks nudging the drama onto a righteous soapbox.
But despite those flaws, the film is anchored by incisive characterizations rich in integrity and heart, and by an urgent simplicity in its storytelling that’s surprisingly powerful. This is reflected also in cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s crisp, unfussy presentation of the Newcastle upon Tyne setting. Eschewing handwringing, I, Daniel Blake portrays ordinary people pushed to breaking point by circumstances beyond their control, and by a government welfare system of circuitous Kafkaesque bureaucracy seemingly designed to beat them down.
At the center is the Geordie of the title, Daniel Blake, played by comedian Dave Johns in a performance all the more moving for its restraint, and for the dogged determination etched deeper into his face with each fresh frustration. A skilled carpenter in his late fifties, Daniel lives alone in a Brutalist low-cost housing block, keeping up a scrappy but good-natured rapport with his neighbors. He has managed to remain gainfully employed even while nursing his wife through a long illness that ultimately killed her. But doctors have forbidden him from returning to work until he has sufficiently recovered from a heart attack.
The beginning of his odyssey is amusingly played out in offscreen dialogue heard over the opening titles, as a so-called healthcare professional interviews Daniel about his eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance. His impatience grows as he fields a string of inane questions about basic motor skills and continence, none of them having anything to do with the condition of his heart. When the assessor judges him fit for work, his travails begin, first on a telephone helpline with epic hold time, and then at the local job center, where getting someone actually to listen while he explains his situation proves impossible.
Loach and Laverty make the argument that the arcane complexities of the welfare system — with its head-spinning protocols, appeals, sanctions and built-in stumbling blocks — are a political weapon designed to save the austerity-minded government money. While that institutional hostility is represented here by the cold indifference of employment office workers, it’s clear that the filmmakers are taking issue with the kind of unfounded generalizations common to conservative pundits, who accuse people on welfare of being lazy “skivers” that don’t want to work.
The one sympathetic ear at the job center belongs to a woman named Ann (Kate Rutter), who is reprimanded by her supervisor for taking the time to walk befuddled Daniel through a confusing online form. She warns him that not following the rules can have dire consequences, and that many honest, hardworking people like him have found themselves on the street after being defeated by the system. The story essentially boils down to Daniel’s quest to hang in there and play the game long enough to secure an appeal interview — all while continuing to live without an income.
He hits frequent brick walls, but Daniel also experiences many small acts of kindness from people in a vividly drawn milieu that Loach clearly knows well. And Daniel in turn shows overwhelming kindness to Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother with two children, relocated from London after being evicted by her affordable-housing landlord for filing a legitimate complaint, and then spending two years in a homeless hostel. Beaten by her own clashes with the job center, Katie goes without food and basic necessities to take care of her kids, eventually pushing her to make heartbreaking choices.
Anyone who has ever witnessed a parent or relative struggle with automated customer support lines or basic computer functions will find it distressing to watch tech-challenged Daniel’s exasperation. The film provides cogent evidence that we no longer live in a society designed to listen to people’s problems, and many are simply unable to navigate the modern world unassisted.
The basic human rights at stake here are tremendously relatable, even to those of us who have never come close to this degree of deprivation. One of the more upsetting scenes shows Katie’s visit to a food bank, where her desperation and hunger cause an incident that alarms her children and Daniel, who has grown close to the family. Like Johns, who embraces the story’s farcical elements while never obscuring its sorrow, Squires strikes no false notes in her beautifully subdued performance. If the script veers into cliché by backing Katie into the most compromising corner of hopelessness, the character never seems less than authentic.
It’s too easy to be cynical about Loach’s films, and his inclusion in the Cannes lineup often prompts eye rolls about good old stalwart leftie Ken, back with another noble anti-conservative tract. But the consistency of his career and the clarity of his message command admiration. This film contains echoes of any number of previous entries from the director’s extensive output, stretching back to Cathy Come Home, the searing 1966 BBC TV play about homelessness. But I, Daniel Blake also feels entirely of the moment in a time of increasing attention to income inequality as the divide between the haves and have-nots becomes a dangerous chasm.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe
Production companies: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, Les Films du Fleuve, Le Pacte
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Producer: Rebecca O’Brien
Executive producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Vincent Maraval
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designers: Fergus Clegg, Linda Wilson
Costume designer: Joanne Slater
Music: George Fenton
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Casting: Kahleen Crawford
Sales: Wild Bunch
Not rated, 100 minutes