2016; directed by Ken Loach; written by Paul Laverty; 100 mins

I really don’t know how to start this review. Do I start with a political rant? Do I start with some facile commendations? Do I bang on about how much I, personally, identify with the journey of the hero and talk about the welfare system and the underclass struggle through the medium of me? Do I talk about how much of a fan I am and how this ranks among Loach‘s other works? Or do I just bail and talk about how I don’t know how to start the review? I am confused because after the experience of this film, I can’t help but have this all feel a little meaningless. It’s a festival film about poverty that middle class people like me will go and see and then I’ll tell family and friends about it and they’ll mostly go; “yeah, I’m not going to see that” and if nothing else, that’ll be true because if it gets a release at all, it’ll be on in a tiny screen for a week before it slithers out on DVD and Blu-Ray for people to look at the cover and then remind themselves to download it off the internet.

So, what’s the fucking point? Why bother talking about Ken Loach’s films? Isn’t it all just about liberals saving their skins in the comfort of a warm cinema for ninety minutes/two hours? Well, rather this than posting meaningless, self-help, “I-am-a-massive-cunt-without-an-original-thought-in-my-head” memes on social media. At least, this way, we get some honesty.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a 59 year-old carpenter from Newcastle, dealing with the bureaucracy of the benefits system for the first time after a major heart attack. He is diagnosed by his doctor as being unfit for work and advised to seek sickness benefit but his get-up-and-go attitude shoots him in the foot as a Healthcare Professional decides that he is indeed fit for work and can only sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance. He must get a correct CV, spend 35 hours a week looking for work and prove that he has done so (If you’ve not tried it – it’s harder than you’d think) or he faces constant threat of his payments being frozen. In the meantime, he befriends a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires) who has been shifted up to Newcastle from London with her two kids due to lack of housing and sky-rocketing house prices in the capital. She gets kicked out of the Job Centre for protesting a sanction placed on her for being late because she got lost on the way. Daniel is sympathetic and soon becomes a friend and helper to this misplaced family.

At first, the red tape is funny. Over the opening credits, we hear Daniel’s increasing frustration and sarky responses to the increasingly inane questions posed by the aforementioned “healthcare professional”. This soon turns sour as the sheer incompetence, condescension and in many cases, outright hostility of the Job Centre employees chips away at his resolve. In the meantime, Katie is struggling to make ends meet to provide clothing and food for her two kids, Dylan and Daisy. The saddest thing is, that Katie must be barely out of her teens and she reminded me of a few girls I’ve known who’ve been left up the duff by boyfriends who fuck off. Any potential they have immediately out the window.

Because of her accent, Hayley Squires will probably never be fawned over like Carey Mulligan or Emma Watson but through her performance, Katie’s story tears chunks out your heart. The already famous scene at the foodbank and a later development that sees her dragged even further through the social mud are made all the more upsetting because of her conviction and unquestionable believability. Dave Johns, better known as a club comic from the UK circuit, is great as Daniel who tries his utmost to keep his dignity and determination going, all the while being mucked about by an uncaring system that constantly and with a complete lack of self-awareness asks him; “do you understand?”

A few years ago, at Film School, some students took in a screening of Loach’s 2002 film, Sweet Sixteen. After the film finished one of the students said she didn’t like it because she knew how it was going to end and so it was predictable. She never stopped to consider that idea that if this is a reflection of real life then the question should be: why did it seem predictable? So, whilst the same could be said for certain plot beats in this, without giving anything away, the questions we should be asking are not why did they choose that cliche? They should be: what caused this to happen? Who and where are the real culprits? On that, it was nice to see Iain Duncan Smith (or: “Iain Duncan… fuckin’… wot’s that cunt’s name?”) getting a shout out in one key outburst by a tramp.

The fact of the matter is, I identified with this a lot whilst at the same time being acutely aware that I have been very lucky and I don’t have to live under the yoke of the benefits system anymore. Well done to George Miller and the Cannes jury for awarding the Palme d’Or to this because you’re unlikely to see a more powerful film this year and if this truly is Loach’s final tale then what a way to bow out, with what is undoubtedly one of his greatest works. And shame on those critics who thought this not worthy of the top prize for what can only be assumed was it’s being too emotionally on the nose but this is an entirely emotional issue and the film judges it just right.

Notice also, that this is one Loach film that really cuts back on regular composer George Fenton‘s music. All I heard, pretty much, was three scenes that had a minimal score which just subtley underlined the emotions of those scenes. Regular collaborator, Paul Laverty has knocked out another great script which really gets to grips with the minutiae of the benefits process. It’s researched, informed and handles the story with his typical humanitarianism. Robbie Ryan‘s cinematography is reliably warm and still keeps that Czech New Wave spirit alive, particularly in one key tracking shot where the camera follows Daniel, Katie and the kids to the back of the queue for the foodbank and takes in all the people lined up outside. It’s an image that sums up the film’s focus on 21st century degradation and Ken Loach’s legacy as the caretaker of postwar British cinema and chronicler of the working classes.

The piece to which people have inevitably compared this is 1966’s TV play Cathy Come Home, about a lower middle class, young family and how they so easily slipped between the cracks and ended up split apart and on the streets. This is true and it just goes to show how nothing has moved on but another comparison should be 2014’s Jimmy’s Hall, a film set in the 30s which was about the importance of community. In I, Daniel Blake, we see the fallout of 80-90 years hence when that community is all but gone.


6 thoughts on “NZIFF ’16/06 – I, DANIEL BLAKE

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