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Ken Loach is a filmmaker who proudly wears his political beliefs on his sleeve. He is someone who keeps socialist themes in his movies and is one of the most lauded British directors. His latest movie I, Daniel Blake keeps to that mode and won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, making Loach the oldest director to win the prize.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old joiner and carpenter who is forced to give up work after suffering a heart attack and has to battle the bureaucracy and jobsworths to get any form of welfare. During a visit to the Job Centre, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother who has been forced to move from London to Newcastle to get social housing and the two form a friendship as the older man uses his skills to help the young woman.
I, Daniel Blake is a movie that puts its politics above story and it was more like a political lecture rather than a narrative piece of fiction. If Loach wanted to make a documentary he should have just made one. At best the movie could be described as Dickensian – being a modern tale about poverty and the working class or as a counterbalance to poverty porn shows like Benefits Street and most of Channel 5’s output. However, Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty tell a thin story that serves as a cathartic experience for them – they have made movies with more nuanced characters, stories and plotting like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won Loach’s first Palme d’Or.
Loach and Laverty do examine serious issues regarding the British welfare and housing systems. Daniel has to battle through the absurdity of the system like the disability assessment, which has been outsourced to an American company; and the assessors overriding the opinions of medical professionals with their point based questions. In the UK many people have been rejected for Employment and Support Allowance and successful appeals rates against negative decisions are high. Loach made this part of the movie a comedy of errors. Other themes that are touched on is the use of food banks – showing a large queue of people building up for a charity service that has been set up for people despite circumstances. Katie and her family serve as an example of a scandal in London where there is a lack of affordable and social housing and people have been forced to move hundreds of miles away from their home city.
It is hard to look at I, Daniel Blake with a politically neutral viewpoint since it is demanding a political reaction – one of anger. Audience members with a left wing perception will be angered because this movie is showing the difficulties facing the world of the unemployed and more right leaning viewers will be angry due to the bias in its presentation. The scenarios presented in the movie looked like they were ripped from the Daily Mirror. The movie was at its most egregious in its portrayal of the Job Centre where all but one of the workers are heartless monsters who are sticklers for the rules and have no empathy – they are demonized for just doing their jobs. The 2012 short film The Mass of Men touched on similar territory as I, Daniel Blake but was much more balanced with its characterization than the Ken Loach movie. Daniel himself is made out to be a proud man, but there is a difference from pride to being obstinate like when he said he applied for jobs and he shows his resume written in pencil. Loach and Laverty allow their characters to soapbox too much about their views on welfare, employment and capitalism.
The heart of the movie comes from Katie and her children with Squires giving an emotional yet grounded performance. She had to move away from her home, has to take her kids away from their school and friends and lost her family support network. Katie is clearly a loving mother but so poor that she sacrificed eating herself so she could feed her children and had to take drastic action just get basic essentials. Because of the grinding poverty Katie suffers, she has moments of being emotionally overwhelmed, hiding her feelings from her children and the movie touches on an issue that’s often ignored; that people in these circumstance are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. Katie also served as a vessel for Loach to show working class solidarity, that the community will unite to help each other. Katie’s story allowed Loach to air his concern without the character being overly political herself – the whole movie should have been like that.
I, Daniel Blake does have emotional resonance and the issues it highlights are important, but it so preachy that it will struggle to appeal to audience members who do not share Loach’s political briefs.