It’s amusing when you come across a film at Cannes (that despite being filmed entirely in English) still requires English subtitles. This is in reference to I, Daniel Blake, which is set in modern-day Newcastle where the local dialect (whilst brimming with friendliness) can sound inaudible to a foreign ear.
But “Nee Bother” as our good-humored protagonist Daniel Blake would say, as the (somewhat) language barrier doesn’t take any of the heartfelt drama away in this new film directed by Ken Loach. What might be his final effort is another typical social-realist drama, following everyday people trying to deal with the squalor of modern British life.
Comedian Dave Johns plays the titular 59-year-old widower who, after a heart attack, is advised by his doctors not to continue working his carpentry job until he is deemed fit enough. This is what leads Daniel into the sticky bureaucratic web constructed by the UK government which supposedly “helps” those that need it.
Government welfare is the last thing that the independent, self-reliant Daniel wants, but with no other source of income, he swallows his pride and applies for an unemployment allowance. However, after a rather clinical “assessment,” the welfare offices shovel him off to the Jobseekers allowance instead.
At first this journey is written as a Kafkaesque comical-farce that Daniel (like many disgruntled Brit’s can attest to) finds is a horrifically tedious process. Daniel must wade through the Byzantine trenches of unavailable call-centers which subject its customers to repetitive Mozart-musical-torture. And then he must wait for a letter or phone call to be delivered/received in a specific order before he may proceed with his application. In short – it’s a system that feels designed to avoid the British public at all costs.
And it’s not just Daniel feeling the pinch. Single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) shows up 5 minutes late to her benefits appointment having recently relocated from London with her two children. After a heated discussion with the uncaring staff, Daniel comes to her defense and both are asked to leave and an unlikely friendship is formed.
Credit needs to be given to both Johns and Squires, as their onscreen chemistry is nothing short of astonishing. They both play thick-skinned characters but manage to demonstrate many levels of nuanced vulnerability.
A particularly distressing scene creeps up out of nowhere when a starving Katie breaks down at a local foodbank after munching down a tin of baked bins in front of her kids. Feeling lost and ashamed, it’s Daniel that picks her up gives her an honest pep-talk – it’s a moment so pure in its essence that it brings tears to your eyes.
In the final act we witness what the abandoning effects of the government does to our leading characters. Daniel, who showed great self-respect and patience in following the guidelines, ends up snapping and resorting to an aggressive protest which he spurs on the working-class locals with roaring approval. This scene is also where the film gets it title and it evokes a feeling of social justice which feels right at home in any Loach movie.
Katie, meanwhile, becomes an even greater victim to the system. In order to put shoes on her kids feet, she sacrifices her dignity (the one thing Daniel holds dearest) by resorting to escort work. It’s here where Loach emits great sympathy, not just for Katie but for all those who’ve had their back turned on them by the Tory government.
There’s certainly a hefty political agenda woven into the script by Paul Laverty. Issues relating to council housing and the astronomical cost of southern property are brought to the forefront when Katie explains to Daniel that there was nothing for “her kind” in London. There are also references to zero-hour contracts as well as a hard look at the morality of prostitution. But that’s part of the charm of I, Daniel Blake – it manages to be a touchingly funny film about contemporary issues without coming across as political propaganda.
While the ending does feel slightly rushed, and the big speech at the end does feel a touch overly sentimental, if I, Daniel Blake should be Loach’s final film, then he truly has gone out punching.
I, Daniel Blake is a dignified film containing moments of hilarity and genuine heartbreak. It's a movie dripping with social relevance and shines a light on the red tape bureaucracy that cripples those that are in most need of help. Ken Loach, we salute you.