Ken Loach is a national fucking treasure.
Another blistering addition to the 80-year-old filmmaker’s incredible body of work, his latest may have no pretensions to subtlety or restraint, but given the urgent message at the film’s core, that’s exactly what I, Daniel Blake needs to do.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old skilled labourer living with heart disease, and as he attempts to rehabilitate in order to get back to work, bristles up against Britain’s Department of Work and Pensions, a system seemingly designed to ensnare people in its web of bureaucratic red tape. Daniel attempts to resolve the issue alongside his new friend, a single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires) who is struggling to put food on the table for her two children.
While it would be incredibly easy for the legendary British director to coast at this point in his career, it’s precisely his having something to say that the film even exists, returning from retirement after the UK elected a Conservative government last year. This is as such an extremely heartfelt, earnest effort from Loach, mainlining soul as it details how a broken system seeks to keep normal, honest, hard-working people down when they need help the most.
Loach shoots the two cross-hatched core plots with his usual restrained yet highly sympathetic observational style, allowing John and Squires, who may be largely unknown to audiences, to give monumental, overwhelmingly affecting performances without ever needing to indulge in any over-the-top, awards-baiting Oscar reel scenes.
Even with its inherent miserableness, though, Loach and his frequent screenwriter Paul Laverty ensure to mine well-placed laughs out of the absurd set-up, with the film even occasionally reaching an almost Gilliam-esque level of surreal social satire, as the government machine increases its vice-grip over people it barely recognises as, well, people.
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or though unfortunately unlikely to do much business in terms of stateside awards – a shame given the immense profile-boost an Oscar nomination or four would give it – Loach’s latest melds expert direction with faultless performances to deliver an infuriating takedown of a dehumanising state-run system in desperate need of an overhaul. The film, one of the year’s most important and one which should probably be shown in educational institutions all over the country, will however inevitably fall deaf upon the ears of those who need to hear its message the most.
I, Daniel Blake is in UK cinemas October 21st and US cinemas December 23rd