Something Different: A Movie Review

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Movie review: I, Daniel Blake

This is the second of veteran English director Ken Loach’s little films with big ideas to win Cannes’ grand prize, the Palme D’Or. And for the 80-year-old king of social realist cinema, who supposedly retired in 2014 only to recant after the Tory election win in 2015, it’s something of a return to form.

That’s to say, yes, it’s another film fiercely angry about contemporary Britain’s treatment of its more unfortunate citizens.

But like Loach’s previous My Name is Joe and Ladybird, Ladybird, which this sometimes resembles, it’s made into affecting human cinema by its characters and the riveting performances behind them.

Scene from the film I, Daniel Blake. Photo / Cannes Film Festival
Scene from the film I, Daniel Blake. Photo / Cannes Film Festival

At some point the two leads in this, convalescing fifty-something Newcastle builder Daniel (Dave Johns) and struggling young single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) visit a foodbank.

Without warning, the episode becomes a devastating emotional moment. It’s hard not to think that through misty eyes, the Cannes jury ticked their ballots right then.

Johns, a stand-up comic, is great casting as Daniel. The widower is off work because of a heart attack but finds himself in a humiliating Kafkaesque loop after he applies for a sickness benefit.

His doctor says he shouldn’t work. Social services say no, according to its Q&A health checklist, which we hear Daniel answering in the movie’s hilarious opening, he’s not sick enough.

Scene from the film I, Daniel Blake. Photo / Cannes Film Festival
Scene from the film I, Daniel Blake. Photo / Cannes Film Festival
So, to get any benefit, he must apply for jobs he can’t then accept. On one of this repeated visits to the benefits office he meets Katie who, with her two kids, has shifted from London because Newcastle is the nearest social housing.

She too finds herself at the mercy of the welfare agency. They cut her benefit – a “sanction” – after turning up late to an appointment with the department.

Meanwhile, Daniel finds it tough dealing with a department which is “digital by default” when he’s “pencil by default”. One where those quizzing sickness benefit applicants are deemed “healthcare professionals” and rulings are given any an anonymous Orwellian “decision-maker”.

There’s something intriguing about a Loach film, which can have feeling of being improvised and taking on an agency which has a scripted corporate response for dealing with the messiness of real lives.

While so much of this rings true, there’s but one false note here. That’s a point late in the film when Daniel attempts to rescue Katie from a bad decision she’s made to ensure her family is fed. It feels like a rare staged “movie” kind of moment in a film that otherwise eschews clichés.

It’s also touching in how it celebrates common decency – Daniel becomes a surrogate grandad to Katie’s kids; he’s mates with the young black guy next door who helps him with online benefit applications in between doing dodgy deals to import trainers from China.

Scene from the film I, Daniel Blake. Photo / Cannes Film Festival
Scene from the film I, Daniel Blake. Photo / Cannes Film Festival

It’s funny too in a if-you-didn’t-laugh-you’d-cry kind of way.

The chuckles come mostly care of Johns’ playing Daniel’s quiet exasperation. His reaction at having to endure all four of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while being put on hold with the department is priceless.

And while it’s a typically plain-looking Loach film, there’s grim poetry in the script by Paul Laverty, his eighth for the director. You could write songs from some of the lines. There’s one in that opening interview when Daniel gets asked everything from the mobility of his limbs to the movements of his bowels.

An increasingly infuriated Daniel pleads: “Isn’t anyone going to ask me about my heart?”

I, Daniel Blake may be an incensed political film. But it runs on the hope that a decent bloke will get asked just that.

Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Director: Ken Loach
Rating: M (offensive language, adult themes)
Running time: 100 mins
Verdict: Veteran political director in top form


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