In 2013, Ken Loach seemed destined to enter the pantheon of filmmakers who bow out with a movie that was, at best, inconsequential to the hard hitting filmography that came before. His proposed final film was 2014’s Jimmy’s Hall, a film about the tensions between the Catholic Church, local government and the vibrant youth culture of 1930’s Ireland.
For one of the most important British filmmakers of all time, bowing out with a period piece that paid more than a little narrative debt to Footloose ensured underwhelming results. Instead of ending his career on a high, he was ending with nothing more than a shrug from critics and art house audiences alike.
A Refreshing Return to Form
Then, something happened. Upon hearing about the injustices heaped upon the working classes in the most deprived areas of Britain daily by the upper-class friendly Conservative government, Paul Laverty wrote the angry and impassioned screenplay for I, Daniel Blake. Criticising the right-wing powers that be isn’t a novel idea for a Loach film; for British audiences, social realist dramas are stereotyped as having a liberal bias, due to how much Loach’s films have pushed this ideology and way of filmmaking into the social consciousness.
What is novel is that Laverty has penned a screenplay so righteously fuming about the lack of justice for those lower down on the food chain, it has coaxed his long time collaborator out of retirement for a swan song that is fully deserving of his talents. It doesn’t break any new ground as a piece of cinema, nor does it innovate Loach’s defined style (or lack thereof). But it does provide a hard-hitting, emotional experience that is less a wake up call to British society than a heartfelt sucker punch that will leave you reeling for weeks afterwards.
The movie is anchored by a strong central performance from Dave Johns as the title character, Daniel Blake, a middle aged Newcastle joiner who needs to receive out of work sickness payment after suffering a heart attack. He is a man who is broken down by the bureaucracy of a system that keeps informing him he’s fit and ready to work, despite doctors warnings against this. He’s only allowed to receive money if he proves he is out looking for work, with further indignities lying ahead as he has to tell employers he’s only asking for work to receive benefits money.
Despite this, the character remains good humoured and warm company throughout. Johns’ performance is both a testament to the British spirit and the perseverance of the working classes through hard times. Once international viewers are attuned to the thick Geordie accents, they’ll be rewarded with a film whose themes are universal, even if it is rooted entirely in the niche world of the British Department of Work and Pensions. His sarcastic, bantering humour in the face of endless governmental setbacks makes this Loach’s answer to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where the root source of humour was a never-ending spiral of being sent from department to department, each one telling you they had nothing to help you with.
Daniel’s quest for sick pay ensures he crosses paths with Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, who have just been moved hundreds of miles north to Newcastle after a government department declared this the only place to get council housing. The what’s and why’s of this move will make sense to any British viewer, but it is treated with a dignity not usually associated with this topic.
Political Filmmaking that focuses only on the human cost of policy
The right-wing Conservative government in the UK, as well as the right-wing press, have bent over backwards in their war against benefits by labelling anybody unfit to work as a “scrounger” sponging off the state. There was even a hit documentary series in Britain called Benefits Street that played into these media stereotypes; it was an evident influence on the backward humour of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby.
Loach has very self-consciously made one of his most mainstream movies here, in a bid to infiate the multiplexes and spread the word of humanising those in society who have been cruelly stereotyped despite living in dour circumstances. The two lead characters here are a single mother and a middle aged man desperate to seek benefits. From these rough character outlines onwards, the screenplay does everything in its power to make them feel human, to make their very distinctive struggles feel universal, even if they are only experienced by the unlucky few who society continues to fail.
The movie is angry, but seldom feels politicised in its anger (with the exception of a foul mouthed tirade towards “Iain Duncan Whatshisface”). It feels designed specifically for people who wouldn’t usually see Loach’s movies or share his ideology to agree that this is a systematic problem that needs to be addressed. That he manages to do it with well developed characters, an engaging narrative and more than its fair share of funny moments is just a bonus.
If there are any complaints, it is the fact that as social realist genres in this mould are so frequently produced worldwide and that newspaper headlines like this story are generated by the dozen each day, the narrative feels predictable. Yet even this predictability works in the favour of Loach’s thesis. By humanising somebody who would otherwise go down in history as nothing more than a government statistic, it is made incredibly clear that this isn’t a political problem or a class one, but a humanitarian one on a scale that one of the world’s richest countries shouldn’t be witnessing in any way, shape or form.
There was minor outrage among art house circles when George Miller’s Cannes jury awarded the Palme D’Or to Loach’s film earlier this year, with many citing the recurrent theme of festival juries choosing the most timely political film to take home the big prize, instead of the best film full stop. In the case of 2015 winner Dheepan, an inconsequential and vaguely problematic look at immigrant life in Paris, this was no doubt the case.
With I, Daniel Blake, these criticisms fail to be held up to scrutiny. It may have not been the most vital film premiering this year, but as both a call to arms for a disenfranchised society and a fitting swan song for a legendary filmmaker, there is no doubt it deserved to take home the prize.
I, Daniel Blake may not be stylish in any way, nor does it possess a noticeable sense of technical accomplishment. But it manages to make you feel seething anger in a way that will see many on the right leaning end of the spectrum dismiss it as leftie propaganda.
That couldn’t be further from the truth; this is passionate filmmaking to its very core, as well as the rare art house effort that could stand a chance with mainstream audiences. Once they attune to the fact the only action sequence is a man trying to work out how to use his computer to send a benefits application form, that is.
Which films manage to balance a political agenda with an engaging storyline the best?
I, Daniel Blake is released in the UK on October 21 and in the US on December 23. All international release dates are here.
amzn_assoc_placement = “adunit0”;
amzn_assoc_search_bar = “false”;
amzn_assoc_tracking_id = “filminquiry-20”;
amzn_assoc_ad_mode = “manual”;
amzn_assoc_ad_type = “smart”;
amzn_assoc_marketplace = “amazon”;
amzn_assoc_region = “US”;
amzn_assoc_title = “Find on Amazon”;
amzn_assoc_linkid = “1752bbbfe276ee0ef340cfa3d5aa34a4”;
amzn_assoc_asins = “B0019XIRIO,B015N8JHWK,B00GPZS5KG,B01LYOFJMC”;
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.