I Daniel Blake (2017)

I DANIEL BLAKE is the movie that has finally made me realize that I need to watch more films by director Ken Loach.  Not that I needed a lot of impetus to do so, since he’s renowned and been talked about as one of Britain’s all-time greats when it comes to naturalistic portrayals of the dispossessed.  Akin to a less acerbic Mike Leigh, one of my personal favorites, Loach has a very engaging and emotionally affecting style that places emphasis on character first and foremost.  Environmental circumstances, poverty and mental affliction all intertwine here in a way that’s seamless and organic.  Loach comes across an empathic observer, offering great insight into the way that the system has been changed from a support structure for those in need to a means of punishing the destitute.  It’s a heartbreaking, scathing look at the way a corrupt system can fail the very people it’s meant to protect. It sidesteps the opportunity to turn to easy solutions or a sugarcoated ending in the name of painting a realistic portrait of how the world really is – and what can be done to make it better.

The film follows Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old widower who is instructed by his doctor not to return to his carpentry job after he suffers a near-fatal cardiac arrest. But when the Department for Work and Pensions for sickness benefits denies his request, he’s given no choice but to jump through various systematic hoops, some baffling, some humiliating, as he struggles against endless red tape and a soulless bureaucracy.  Daniel’s tale is interlinked with that of East End Mila Kunis look-a-like Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother-of-two who is relocated from London to Newcastle because there’s no public housing available for them. She’s sanctioned because on her first day in a strange city, she’s late to an employment center for an assessment. Daniel looks after her and helps her by making repairs around her flat. This unlikely pairing shouldn’t really work; he has a dry wit and life experience, with real practical knowledge, but, like Katie, is as innocent as a child about the new world of welfare. On paper it would have been easy to turn Daniel into a leachy curmudgeon, exploiting Katie’s vulnerability, but this is where I DANIEL BLAKE stands out from the rest; Dave Johns plays the role passively and with restraint – it could be easy enough to imagine your own grandfather or father in this predicament. It is a truly authentic, less showy portrayal of being a widower with a flawed heart.  Hayley Squires plays her role with veritable conviction and I’m sure it won’t be long until she breaks out into the mainstream.

I DANIEL BLAKE is not an easy film to watch, and certainly might play differently to various cultures who may not be as familiar with the country’s policies and intervention methods, but it is at the core a very human and humane story about people with foibles and struggles that are easy to identify. You want to follow these characters on their tumultuous journeys as hard as they are to endure.  There are a couple of scenes that maybe play out a bit too long and it does often come across as a preachy film, but the heart and soul of this story is always in the right place.  You don’t need to be the same nationality or ages as these people to want to examine their plights as the story unfolds.  You just need to be an open-minded observer of the ordinary and how relating to the difficulties of other human beings like Daniel and Katie can be an extraordinary experience.  I cannot wait to watch more of Loach’s work, both past and future as a result of his latest and I’m sure you’ll feel the same.  B

James Laczkowski