Veteran filmmaker Ken Loach has provided a social commentary through his work in British cinema for decades, from his kitchen sink dramas to historical pieces. His latest feature unfolds very much in the present day as he returns from retirement to direct I, Daniel Blake, written by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty. Geordie comedian turned actor Dave Johns stars in the titular role, as a carpenter who has suffered a major heart attack. Following his doctor’s orders, he is deemed unfit to work but after a frustrating call-centre conversation with a so-called “healthcare professional”, he fails to meet the required specifications to receive sickness benefits. This leads him to the job centre where he meets single mother-of-two Katie (Hayley Squires) who is in an equally strenuous situation caused by the government’s flawed systems. The unlikely pairing unite in their time of hardship and together they attempt to overcome adversity.
The alarming underlying message of this film is arguably more important than the plot itself as the narrative tears into our bureaucratic policies, highlighting the flaws in our system and the senseless box-ticking jobsworths that enforce the stringent processes. Daniel himself describes the arduous set-up as a ‘monumental farce’ and the powerfully telling screenplay makes for very uncomfortable and frustrating viewing. Aside from exposing our government’s unfair methods, the story succeeds in showing the generosity and humanity of our citizens as neighbours, or in some cases strangers, go out of their way to help those in need. A particularly harrowing scene in a food bank illustrates this, and is captured subtly but immaculately by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who uses the camera cleverly throughout so as not to distract from the bleakness of the subject matter.
The casting of Dave Johns in the central role is incredibly effective. Because he is largely unknown in the industry, he makes the ideal everyman and is easily relatable for the audience. We laugh at his dry sense of humour, and cry with him as he reaches breaking point in his struggle to make ends meet. Hayley Squires is equally excellent in portraying Katie, the character’s vulnerability disguised by a hardened exterior initially until heart wrenching events begin to take their toll on the young mum. The acting is terrific all round, including a stellar turn from eleven-year-old Briana Shann as Katie’s daughter Daisy, who is wise beyond her years and could teach many a lesson in empathy.
Ken Loach continues to cement his stature as one of Britain’s most important filmmakers at the grand old age of eighty, and his most recent work is a clear example of his significance in our current climate. His depiction of the ‘broken’ nation is profoundly moving and staggeringly real. He coaxes understated yet undeniably captivating performances from both Dave Johns and Hayley Squires that go a long way in expressing his political views. I, Daniel Blake will leave viewers upset and angry at the harsh realities of what is happening in our society, but is an eye-opening film that everyone should see.
See the trailer: