Tucked in among the current endless running of Doctor Strange at the local cinema recently, there lies a film that is rarely seen projected onto the screens of corporate multiplexes. It is a film that shuns conventional story telling techniques and actively avoids resolution in order to send a message, passionately and articulately.
I am talking about I, Daniel Blake, a new film from established British filmmaker Ken Loach. Nearing 80, Loach has now won the converted Palme D’or award twice, once for his film The Wheat That Shakes the Barely and now for I, Daniel Blake. This new film follows the titular Daniel Blake as he attempts to navigate the labyrinth of paperwork, questionnaires and government help lines in order to receive his Employment and Support Allowance. Having been deemed unfit to work by three separate medical specialists Daniel doesn’t however qualify for what the government deems unfit to work and therefore cannot receive his money.
This catch-22 is what provides most of the films conflict, and Daniel’s hopelessness in the face of the system is constantly infuriating. Along the way he meets Katie, a single mother of two trying to claim her jobseekers allowance in order to provide for her two small children. Played fantastically by Haley Squires, Katie’s story is the saddest of all in I, Daniel Blake and made even more so by how much the film treats her with dignity and respect. In one particularly harrowing scene, set in a foodbank, Katie’s act of desperation and humiliation is shown at a distance. Whereas a lesser director might feel the need to magnify Katie’s pain, Loach stands back and makes the audience watch the whole encounter unfold in excruciating real time. It’s this way that Loach draws his characters so realistically, and places his audience into the film in a way that feels wholly real, that their trajectory over the film hits us that much harder.
Squire’s performance as Katie is the clear stand out (and deserves all the awards that will hopefully come her way) but mention also has to be made of Dave Johns as Daniel Blake. Probably most recognisable for his comic acting John’s does bring some great comic timing and delivery to Daniel in the films first two thirds, but his constant anger and frustration and the incomprehensible system he must navigate is what sells the character. Although computers and CV’s might seem like every day to us we share every moment of Daniel’s bafflement as he must adapt to a technological world he knows nothing about, in order to secure money that he is completely entitled to. Again, Loach’s directing often makes us feel that we’re watching a documentary and the realism of the performances and the camerawork only make our bafflement at the system even stronger.
I believe however that the films strongest portion is its ending, something which I won’t spoil here but do want to mention. Throughout the film Loach gradually fades to black at the end of key scenes, letting them linger in the viewers minds and leave uncertain what scene will come next. So when the final fade to black comes we are left wandering for a brief second what will happen, what will become of the characters we’ve spent this time with. And when the credits start to role we feel (or certainly I felt) a loss that stayed with me for a long time after. It’s an ending we can see coming but Loach’s genius is making us feel it even more BECAUSE we could.
Sceptics will (and have) called I, Daniel Blake exaggerated and not a realistic portrayal of working class experience, arguably because excepting it as reality would mean addressing our own middle class guilt. But I defy anyone to watch this film and not see a reflection of the real world, recognise the characters and situations from their own hometowns. Perhaps most reassuring about I, Daniel Blake however is, as I mentioned above, it is a film about something. Frequently throughout the film characters are told by authority figure to be quite or stop talking but this film gives those people a voice, one we should all be shouting in. It reminds that victims or a consciously cruel system are people and if everyone could see that maybe they could do something about it.
– By Jamie Hutton, Culture Editor