At 80 years old, seminal British director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) is showing no signs of mellowing. His films have always been politically charged and motivated by social injustice. With I, Daniel Blake, Loach (along with regular screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty), has delivered one of his most vitriolic pieces of work to date. It is a shattering experience; a furious indictment of a woefully flawed benefits system in a country reeling from the fallout of economic austerity. It will boil your blood and break your heart.
The film is set on the grey streets of Newcastle upon Tyne, a northern English city which has been badly hit by government funding cuts (also the place where this reviewer spent many of his formative years). Daniel Blake is an honest, amiable 59 year old who has suffered a significant heart attack. His doctor has advised that he is unfit to return to work but the agency responsible for allocating benefits deem Daniel ineligible for economic support due to the answers he provides to an absurd assessment. His only hope of income is to apply for job seekers allowance. To claim job seekers allowance though, you have to be able to work. Daniel essentially finds himself in a Catch 22 situation and becomes victim of bureaucratic lunacy. On one of his many fruitless visits to the job centre to argue his case, he encounters troubled young mother Katie (Hayley Squires). She has been forced to uproot from friends and family in London and relocate to Newcastle in order to secure housing for herself and two children Daisy and Dylan (beautifully played by Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan). Dan, a childless widower, strikes up a friendship with Katie and becomes a surrogate grandfather figure to the kids. Their companionship becomes a source of strength in moments of abject despair.
One of the defining traits of Ken Loach films is a startling ability to find the moral heart and intrinsic humanity of his characters. Daniel Blake, played with brilliant understated pathos by Dave Johns is one of his quintessential protagonists. Like Peter Mullan in My Name is Joe and Bruce Jones in Raining Stones, he is driven not only by desperation, but a fundamental belief in his convictions. While his subject matter is usually downbeat and frankly depressing, humour is also a key factor to Loach’s films. I, Daniel Blake has plenty of funny moments with Daniel’s sardonic Geordie wit injecting a comedic slant on the otherwise bleak situation. You have to laugh at his futile attempts to grapple with technology and the banter with his young rascal of a neighbour China (Kema Sikazwe) is charming. The soul of the film however is delivered via the poignant depiction of the relationship between Dan and Katie. Hayley Squires is magnificent, inhabiting her character with steely grit and raw emotion. The bittersweet and often harrowing scenes between Dan and Katie are beautifully nuanced and immaculately delivered. As you grow to care for the characters and invest in their increasingly hopeless predicament, the more infuriated you become with the disastrous political structure that so painfully lets them down.
For all it’s heart and humour, this is a story fuelled by anger. It’s a damning critique of a broken system and the damage it inflicts on vulnerable individuals. I, Daniel Blake is a potent, powerful howl of anguish from a director with a fire in his belly which defies his years. Ken Loach is still raging against the machine and his films are as vital as ever. This one is up there with his best.