One-hundred percent deserving of the Golden Palm at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s understated treasure I, Daniel Blake is an absolutely edifying achievement.
Loach, a connoisseur of kitchen sink realism who’s now 80 years-old, has hinted on several occasions that he’s retiring, and if these reports are accurate then that makes I, Daniel Blake his valedictory film. This unshrinking look at systemic despotism and the real-life desolation it causes is vintage Loach and it’s beautifully observed as well as completely heartbreaking.
The film tells the story of Daniel Blake, marvellously portrayed with restraint and forcefulness by Dave Johns, an English stand-up comic. Daniel is a 59-year-old carpenter taken ill after a heart attack and now in need of social assistance how has to navigate the red tape and the demeaning adage that everything at the Employment and Support Office is “digital by default.” While trying to skipper the digital divide Daniel meets and befriends a sunk single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), whose trudging in the same governmental confusion.
As with Loach’s best work, much of this film’s majesty is a result of the muscular performances from a cast comprised mostly of non-actors. Squires shines in her pained place and her children, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan) are more than tenable, they’re heart-rending and wholly authentic, too.
Britain’s welfare state is void of compassion and amity as it expects Daniel to return to work that his doctor’s insist he cannot perform, and when he asserts to his callous caseworker that “when you lose your self-respect you’re done for” there’s something akin to fatalism in his voice.
The platonic friendship between Daniel and Katie, and Daisy and Dylan’s burgeoning fondness for the old carpenter are some of the film’s finest moments. There’s a similar fondness and affection from all the people in Daniel’s orbit, such as his somewhat shady yet roundly amiable neighbour who’s always scheming but once he picks up that Daniel’s in trouble he offers genuine concern and support.
Paul Laverty, a frequent Loach collaborator, delivers a snapping screenplay that may constitute itself as social-realist agitprop, it’s also occasionally hilarious and, on several occasions, completely heartbreaking.
Daniel is a man whose altruism, consideration and self-sacrifice make him something of a saint, his story here told is graceful in its identity of form and content. I, Daniel Blake is emotional and indispensable viewing as well as being one of the finest films of this or any year.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.