A Film a Week - I, Daniel Blake

A Film a Week is a weekly column on this blog, run on Sunday for our English-language readers and friends, presenting usually local or European festival films to a wider audience. Every review is directly written and not translated.

I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.”

This last line of
Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film is probably the strongest quote since The Network's "I am mad as hell and I can't take it anymore". I, Daniel Blake is a powerful exposé on the topic of dismantling the socially responsible state since the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, and probably the best film of the year.

It is a Newcastle-set story about titular character, played by comedian and stage actor Dave Johns, stuck in a Catch-22 state of fight with the bureaucracy. After the 59 years old carpenter had survived a heart attack at his workplace, his physician finds him unfit to go back to work just yet. But, the “medical care professional” finds him healthy enough to go back to work, denying him benefits. He can appeal and wait for months, but he will run out of money soon. Meanwhile, he can try to get something called “Job Seekers Allowance” and for that he must put up a show that he is actively looking for a job, while being unable to accept any. And most of the bureaucratic procedures and applications are happening on-line, which puts the computer illiterate Daniel in a very frustrating position.

What starts a farce, ends up as a tragedy. Surely enough, we know that Ken Loach is not aiming for amusement in his portrayal of corrupt bureaucracy going rampart. This is not Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or The Double, or any kind of comedy of absurdity and vileness. This is a bold statement about Great Britain now, its Tory government and the proof that the system is rigged against an individual.

Comfortingly, Daniel is not alone in his fight, since on one of his meetings he bumps into Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who just moved from London. Soon enough they forge a family-like relationship of mutual support in emotional and logistical way. But how long can they stand in a fight against more powerful enemy, a fight that is probably rigged?

Shifting the focus from one character’s life to another, Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty succeed in their intent to make us feel for their characters and identify with them. There are really emotionally charged moments, not to mention the ending, there are even melodramatic ones, but still we see Daniel and Katie as our own folks: simple, decent, stubborn, proud and in danger of losing everything. More so, Daniel is our future: we are not getting any younger, we are going to be old, ailing, maybe alone as he is and we will become dependent on someone or something like the state.

It is very much a Ken Loach film. It’s simply composed, there are no hidden layers and secret meanings, and his intentions are clear. We are about to get furious, enraged, revolutionary engaged, but also humane, compassionate and hopeful. Ken Loach doesn’t give up on his traits, like choosing less famous actors and non-professionals for starring roles, picking just the right location for the story, such as Newcastle, once blooming industrial city in Northern England that has suffered in the past decades. Even the aesthetical choices are expected, like opening every outdoor scene with a telephoto shot from afar.

Still, it is an essential Ken Loach film and the great director here is as passionate as ever and can be seen in all three forms. There is “Happy Loach”, a warm, hopeful humorist, there is the “Loach the Ultimate Social Realist”, socially aware, dramatic, and emotional, sometimes even sentimental, and in the end, there is Ken Loach, a life-long activist. The end result is a masterful film that is very hard to shake off.

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