I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan
Plot: A middle aged carpenter who requires state welfare after injuring himself, is joined by a single mother in a similar scenario.
This is more than a movie, it is our quiet rage.
Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film about an impoverished British man battling the state for the right to stay alive has finally hit UK cinemas and it would be of no exaggeration to claim that it’s “about bloody time”.
I, Daniel Blake (2016) isn’t your typical Palme d’Or winner. It’s not really your typical British movie. What ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is, is at once an exposé of the misdemeanours committed on the working and lower classes of the United Kingdom and a powerful, emotional film filled to the brim with passion, intricate storytelling techniques and connectability that’ll have you crying one moment and raging against injustice the next. Above all else, I, Daniel Blake is a force of empathy that goes beyond the confines of the cinema screen and into your walk home, perhaps even right into your bones.
What Loach has conducted with this film is no less than a masterpiece of the modern era. The importance of the movie for sure lies within its commentary on contemporary affairs, not least in its voicing of the fears and anxieties of its home country’s often voiceless lower class, but it would be foolish to suggest that this is the movie’s sole purpose, for Loach has provided not only an intensely realistic portrayal of the characters, situations and scenarios of the unemployed of northern England, but he has also subtly designed an artistic and poignant portrayal of these same aspects. For a man with such a prolific career and respected ouevre, this could be not only the most important film he’s ever made, but also the best.
At the centre of the movie is a very well focused story from screenwriter Paul Laverty (The Wind That Shakes the Barley – 2006) that follows the life of widower Daniel Blake who is being tasked with finding work against his doctor’s wishes following a heart attack. During one of his many confrontations with the Department of Work and Pensions at the local Job Centre, Dan befriends a young single mother who has recently been rehoused in his hometown of Newcastle and is facing similar problems. As their bond grows, so too do their problems, and the pair are stretched further and further as the movie progresses. Cleverly, Loach’s use of the mise-en-scene never imposes on the story itself despite its honestly fantastic presentation and particularly the director’s use of juxtaposition. Visually, he compared the lead character and his troubles to those in more privileged positions around him, and acted alongside the script to create a damming portrayal of society as a whole, as even those who were employed within the movie were enclosed to a slave-like position of following orders no matter their beliefs because of the looming threat of the unemployment line our protagonist was presented as facing. There were, of course, antagonists within the story, but the way in which the themes and ideologies were presented made you feel sorry for them more than angry at them. Cleverly, as outlined above, these antagonists were entrapped and acting without much of a choice (in many cases). They too, were simply trying to heat their home, feed their family, and survive to the next week. It was, generally, a sensationally intricate presentation of the ways in which the lower classes of the United Kingdom have been treated, and of stark contrast to the presentation of the same people within politics and the news media specifically. I, Daniel Blake was an appropriate opposition to these people and these portrayals; an eye opener to those out of the know, and finally an honest voice for those within the know.
Loach’s careful handling of the story was further emphasised by the movie’s almost complete absence of musical accompaniment. The movie was, in many ways, stripped bare as if to emphasise how the film was stripping bare the less than humane acts of its government, the honest portrayal of a life on the breadline. Only in the final act of the film was there any music, and when it was used it wasn’t intrusive but more a distant hum. The film didn’t feature any contemporary music that could’ve attracted viewers and therefore investment but would’ve inevitably watered down the story, it was a simple linear presentation of the horrifying effects current rules within the government can have on anyone, whether you feel they’re deserving or not.
Importantly, the performances of the movie’s two lead characters were also strong enough to deliver the sensitive material. Dave Johns, who had previously had zero film acting credits to his name, was incredibly identifiable and likable. Perhaps a mix of his background as a comedian and the guidance of such an experienced director, his performance was not only typical of the ‘friendly Geordie’ any Brit can tell you they’ve likely experienced at some point in their lives, but it was also deeply personal and individualistic. Johns seemed completely natural in the role, interacting with secondary characters as if it was his nature and standing out in times of desperate struggle when his usually upbeat personality would be replaced by stoic resignation. Johns, alongside Loach, created one of the most identifiable characters in British cinema this century and truly proved himself as a big-screen talent. It was, however, his co-star Hayley Squires (Katie) who was the true standout of the on-screen talent. Her presentation of a desperate single mother miles from home was almost immeasurably identifiable, even to a reviewer like myself who identifies as a different gender and has no children of my own. The brutality of watching a woman having to remain strong to her children while her life falls apart was guided on the screen by Squires’ beautifully orchestrated presentation of the hidden destruction her character was feeling. Alongside Johns, Squires was honest in the role of a character who was written as honestly as could possibly be written. The pair weren’t sugarcoated as lovable fools that could be admired temporarily by those out of the loop as a means of escapism, they were true-to-life people with all of the qualities and deficits of you and I, and they were guided by a director honest in his intentions and a pair of actors so incredibly casted, each of whom performed above and beyond what might have been expected given their relative lack of experience.
Interestingly, the lead characters were seen to interact with a number of additional characters throughout the movie, many of whom were untrained actors from the Newcastle area. In what is surely of testament to the director’s undeniable ability, each of these ‘untrained others’ performed with unwavering honesty in ways that lent to the honesty of the movie and the messages it was sending. From antagonists like the security team from the Job Centre, to more likeable characters with more helpful motives, the film was lit up by the same honest and hard working people the movie itself was aiming to empathise with. This very decision, alongside the choice to cast complete unknowns in the lead roles, again emphasised the story yet also managed to add another layer of honesty and integrity to the project as a whole.
Conclusively, I, Daniel Blake is the film of the year. It is, without a doubt, a movie that transcends cinema and touches upon your very soul, offering an identifiable story of struggle to anyone of any background and perhaps most importantly offering a voice to those who have been, or are going, through the struggles portrayed. This is more than a movie, it is our quiet rage; an artistic expression of the struggles of our people and the reality of our circumstances. Get your tissues ready because I, Daniel Blake will hit you where it hurts and not stop until you understand these struggles. Artistic but ever-so-personal, Ken Loach and his team have offered a masterpiece that must be appreciated for all that it is.