Rarely does a superbly staged and executed film have the impact I, Daniel Blake had on me.
The 59-year-old titular character (played by Dave Johns) has worked as a carpenter most of his life in Newcastle in the UK. He is a man who enjoys and takes pride in what he does. He is honest, straightforward and dignified. A widower, he recently suffered a heart attack and is on the mend, but needs financial assistance from the State because the doctors have not yet cleared him to return to work. While he endeavours to secure funding, he witnesses the frustrations of a single, 27-year-old mother, Katie Morgan (a role filled by Hayley Squires) who has two young children, Daisy, 10, and 7-year-old Dylan.
They – Katie in particular – are in dire circumstances. Katie and the kids’ only chance to escape a one-roomed homeless hostel in London was to accept a flat in a city they didn’t know, some 500 kilometres away. But the moment they arrived, the welfare system threatened their future. Being the caring, selfless man that he is, Daniel immediately steps in to lend a helping hand and a sympathetic ear. It is as if Daniel, Katie and her children are snared in barbed wire and can’t break free, pieces of them being ripped away bit by bit, leaving them desperately, dangerously vulnerable.
This is a sharp commentary on modern day Britain and it is far from pretty. I, Daniel Blake was inspired by a trip that writer Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach (who, among other titles, worked together on The Wind That Shakes The Barley) took to the latter’s childhood home in the Midlands, where Loach has a close connection with a charity that deals with homelessness. While Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan are not based on anyone the filmmakers met at food banks or on the dole queue, the pair is infused with the spirit of some of these people. Lavery and Loach were stirred by the hundreds of decent men, women and their children who shared their intimate stories with them.
A superb slice of life reality piece, it brilliantly highlights the inanity of red tape – bureaucracy gone mad – and how it has the ability to ruin people’s lives. Just following a process because it is the process without overlaying humanity succeeds in slowly strangling (metaphorically) good people. While I, Daniel Blake maintains a gentle pace, it still has the ability to surprise an audience. The ordeal for the two central players is unrelenting.
The acting is top shelf and it, together with the storyline, manage to illicit genuine feelings of despair and frustration from us. Incidentally, the man who plays Daniel Blake is a stand-up comic, who had done bits and pieces of acting, mainly in the theatre, when a producer he had worked with told him he had received a brief that would suit him. And how it does!
Dave Johns is superb in exacting from his performance everyday believability, while Hayley Squires, too, appears nothing but authentic and totally credible. We become involved in the concerns of those that they play and in their destiny in a sure sign that the piece is working the way it was intended.
Ken Loach has always invested in the lives of the working class and has a superb reading of “the way it is”. So it is here. This is a movie that resonates in your soul and remains with you long after you exit the cinema. I, Daniel Blake didn’t win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for nothing. It was highly deserving of that great honour. Please don’t miss it. Rated MA, it scores an 8 to 8½ out of 10.
Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Release Date: 17 November 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television