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Review: 'I, Daniel Blake' - Ken Loach's Bleak Masterpiece


Review by Howard Davis

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

'I, Daniel Blake' is a bleak masterpiece, a chilling and moving story of two people striking up an unlikely friendship under extremely adverse circumstances. It is both a polemical indictment of a faceless benefits bureaucracy that strips claimants of their humanity by reducing them to mere numbers, and a celebration of the decency and compassion of ordinary people who look out for one another when the state has abandoned them. Blessed with exceptional performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, and a deceptively understated screenplay by Paul Laverty, Ken Loach has crafted a gut-wrenching tragicomic drama ("a monumental farce") that blends the moral urgency of his ground-breaking 'Cathy Come Home' (1966) with the mordant, contemporary humour of Mike Leigh.

Over a lifetime of committed film-making, Loach has never wandered far from his central concern - the plight of ordinary, working-class people trapped in an uncaring system and leading lives of quiet desperation. From the miraculous tenderness of 'Kes' (1969), through the Latino union organizers of 'Bread and Roses' (2000) and the Irish freedom fighters that won Loach his first Palme d'Or for 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley' (2006), to the bitter sweet comedy of 'The Angels' Share' (2102), Loach has made clear-eyed, unpatronising, and profoundly moving dramas about oppression, while simultaneously celebrating the power of communities, class solidarity, and interpersonal bonds to resist and sometimes overcome exploitation. In 'I, Daniel Blake,' however, his main characters search in vain for such solace, either sadly and inexorably driven to prostitution to make ends meet, or else to an early grave by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy bristling with anonymous 'decision-makers' and 'sanctions.'

Daniel meets single mother Katie and her two children at a Jobcentre, where he stands up for her against the numbing ineptitude and insensitivity of the staff. Katie's only chance to escape a one-room homeless hostel in London has been to accept a run-down council flat in a gritty city where she knows no one, three hundred miles away. They find themselves in no-man's land, caught on the barbed wire of welfare bureaucracy, policed by the Conservative rhetoric of 'striver or skiver' modern-day Britain. The mantra of this impersonal new world order is "we’re digital by default," to which Daniel replies, "Yeah? Well I’m pencil by default." Scenes of Blake struggling with a computer cursor are wryly amusing ("fucking apt name for it!"), but there is also a sense of simmering outrage at the way this obligatory online form-filling has effectively written people like him out of existence.

Nonetheless, Daniel supports and is supported by those around him, from Kema Sikazwe’s street-smart China, a young black neighbor forging entrepreneurial links online, to Katie’s kids, Daisy and Dylan - the latter only coaxed from his habitual isolation ("no one listens to him, so why should he listen to them?") by the manual magic of carpentry. Having lost a wife whose mind was "like the ocean" and who loved listening to 'Sailing By' (the theme for Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast), Daniel has been left stranded on his own desert island, carving wooden fish mobiles - while Katie is "not waving, but drowning," in the poet Stevie Smith's haunting and harrowing phrase.

"They’ll fuck you around," China tells Daniel, "make it as miserable as possible - that’s the plan." Lying at the dark heart of Loach's drama is the intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy, mobilized as a political weapon to intimidate people in a manner that is anything but accidental. "When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for," says Daniel, whose final political act of graffitied defiance provides a wonderful Spartacus moment. Laverty's beautifully modulated and unsentimental screenplay is a model of well-constructed restraint, having no need of a lavish musical underscore or flashy editing to hammer home its points. Simple fades to black punctuate scenes, allowing a dramatic pause just long enough for their full import to sink in. Like Ozu and Misoguchi before him, Loach manages to create a deep sense of sadness and loss with the minimum amount of stylistic flourish. But the apparent simplicity is deceptive, disguising a level of craftsmanship that only comes from a profound understanding of his materials and technique.

'I, Daniel Blake' was filmed in chronological sequence on location in a grim-looking Newcastle, with the actors receiving just a few pages of script at a time. The unfolding drama was shared on a strictly need-to-know basis, so that during one of the film’s most agonising scenes (shot in a real food bank with real volunteers), even Johns had no idea what Squires was going to do - and ended up gasping with horror, like many in the audience. Another memorable scene took place in a real mini-mart, remembers Johns - "They didn’t close it, they didn’t have extras. I remember Ken said to Hayley, 'After he’s paid his gas bill, we’ll do another take'."

Johns' performance as the widowed joiner who tries to sign on the dole after suffering a heart attack that renders him unfit for work belies his previous thirty years of stand-up comedy experience. There are some similarities between Johns and his character - both 59 at the time of filming, bald, working-class Geordies (one of Johns’ favourite standup lines is "You can tell I’m working class because I’ve got little bits of scratch card under my fingernails"). The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in a surprise, but nonetheless deserved triumph, and had audiences weeping at film festivals from Toronto to Locarno, where it was shown in the Piazza Grande in front of an audience of 8,000 crying Swiss. Johns met a journalist from Variety (which raved about the film’s "quiet beauty"), who told him the film will speak to the working poor in America - "People said to me after screenings in San Sebastián, 'This is happening in our country.' It’s about austerity. It’s about the working person getting shafted again, getting blamed for everything. And what’s happening is that people are getting tired of this now. This film is making people cry, it’s making them angry. And things can change with the will of the people."

Over a career that has spanned more than fifty years, Loach's commitment to social realism has remained unwavering and unflinching in its crystalline focus on the crushing brutality of political and social repression. Like the hand-crafted fish mobiles Daniel so lovingly creates, and which provide a visual leitmotif throughout the film, without the comfort and support of others, we would all be left twisting in the wind, ultimately alone.

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