Film review: I, Daniel Blake

Known for his radical cinematic philosophy and uncompromising social critiques, director Ken Loach has never shied away from the controversial. In fact, in the past some of his films were banned before they reached the screen for being ‘too political’.

Nov 03, 2016, updated Nov 03, 2016

Perhaps then, the media furore surrounding his latest work, I, Daniel Blake, is not too surprising. Though the film has been lauded by many, and earned Loach his second Palme D’Or win, it has also been described as “propaganda” by the London Evening Standard, a “party political broadcast” by The Telegraph and “a povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” by The Times, comments which unleashed a hailstorm of furious tweets in support of Loach.

The film tells the tragic tale of 59-year-old joiner, Daniel Blake (David Johns) who, following a heart attack, is advised by doctors not to return to work. However, an assessment by a “health care professional” deems him fit for employment and he’s told that he needs to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. To be entitled to it he must prove that he spends at least 35 hours a week actively seeking jobs that he’s been medically advised not to do.

In the benefits office he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who has been relocated to Newcastle and is now completely isolated from her family back in London. The two pal up, offering each other the kind of familial support that neither has and both desperately need.

There’s no denying the film is hard-hitting; it’s not easy to watch people in dire circumstances struggling with such ridiculous Kafka-esque bureaucracy. And scenes like the one with the starving Katie in the foodbank, or consoling her daughter over teasing at school, are guaranteed to leave anyone with a shred of humanity caught between heartache for Katie and outrage that people living in an affluent country like Britain could be suffering such degrading poverty. That said, Paul Laverty’s potent script is laced with just enough touching camaraderie and light-hearted banter to remind us of the good in the world and the remarkable resilience of the downtrodden.

Perhaps the acting is not as polished as we’re used to seeing in high profile movies but it gives the film a gritty honesty. Which is, of course, the point. Loach deliberately seeks out untrained or little-known actors, eschewing celebrity in favour of down-to-earth realism.

And in a world obsessed with fame and fortune, thank goodness for Ken Loach, producer Rebecca O’Brien and others like them, people prepared to make films not for their commercial viability but because they do something far more important; they speak out against social injustice.

I, Daniel Blake is screening during the British Film Festival at Palace Nova. Session times here.

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