Just before his last movie, Jimmy Hall, showed at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, social-realist stalwart Ken Loach announced his retirement. Yet here he is back in competition with I, Daniel Blake, a rage against the benefits machine under the Conservative government. It is a welcome return and a welcome return to form.
Set in Newcastle, I, Daniel Blake tells the eponymous tale of a 59-year-old carpenter (Dave Johns) who is recovering from a heart attack. Informed by his doctor and physiotherapist that he is not yet fit to return to work, he is nonetheless instructed to seek employment by a medical professional in the welfare system, or else have his benefits frozen.
Entwining with Daniel’s fate is that of Katie (Hayley Squires). After two years spent in a London homeless hostel, she has been ordered to make the 300-mile trip with her two young children when a residence has become available in Newcastle. Arriving with no money, no friends and no idea as to Newcastle’s geography or infrastructure, she is late for her welfare appointment and faces a terrifying wait until her turn comes around once more.
Written by Loach’s frequent scribe Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake is a controlled howl of protest against a system that values number-crunching, form-filling bureaucracy over common sense or human decency. Daniel finds himself trapped within a Kafka-esque setup, pinballing between queues, phone conversations put on hold, and staff who act, for the most part, like automatons. Katie, meanwhile, cannot afford to feed herself each night as well as her children, and is forced to steal sanitary towels, razors and deodorant.
By locating the occasional concerned, caring worker who is willing to wiggle within the shackles of the system, Loach and Laverty avoid making things too black and white. And the drama is saved from being unremittingly bleak by the many acts of simple kindness on show, some between Dan and Katie, others involving strangers in the street.
It is these moments married to the central characters’ kindness that provide I, Daniel Blake with a bedrock of humanism. Admittedly the film’s final scene is perhaps too on-the-nose and sentimental, and some might find fault with Robbie Ryan’s televisual lensing, though such sparsity serves the story well. But there is no faulting the two lead performances, and two or three scenes are quietly heart-breaking.