I, Daniel Blake: Ken Loach Most Accessible Melodrama

Ken Loach, one of the greatest living British filmmakers–alongside Mike Leigh and Terence Davies–may become the oldest working director in the UK.  At 80, with a solid body of work that consists of 19 films, he still shows his strong, unfailing commitment to social issues cinema–slanted toward left-wing politics.

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It’s therefore a pleasure to report that his latest, I, Daniel Blake, is not only one of Loach’s finest features but also one that is his most accessible, largely due to the humanist vision on display, and also reliance on the conventions of melodrama, much more so than in his previous, equally good but much harsher pictures.

In 2014, when Jimmy Hall played in Cannes Film Festival, Loach suggested that it might be his very last picture.  Fortunately, it has not been the case.  And if I, Daniel Blake is meant to be his last, it’s the perfect swan song to end a career that has been devoted to the plight of the British lower classes. In most of his films, he has depicted the exploitation of the working class members by a small, rich power elite, their suffering from a convoluted, impersonal, red tape bureaucracy, which can–literally–bring down the most sincere and honest British tax payers.

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Like Mike Leigh (who’s younger by seven years), Loach has been a vocal critic of British society, past and present. Indeed, no matter who is in power–and this goes beyond Thatcherism–British life has become more and more sharply stratifed, more and more plagued by social inequalities and economic inequities.

With I, Dnaiel Blake, Loach’s 13th film in Cannes Festival, the venerable director has made his most fully realized films since The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which won the top award, the Palme d’Or, in 2008.  IFC, which has distributed several of Loach’s films, will release theatrically the film in the US, probably after playing the various fall festivals (such as Toronto).

Once again collaborating with his loyal and reliable scribe, Paul Laverty, Loach has structured his new drama around one heroic figure, Daniel Blake (splendidly portrayed by Dave Johns), who had suffered a heart attack that almost killed him as construction worker.

he decent man, who is only 59 and usually wears jeans and leather jacket, is placed on sick leave by his cardiologist, which means he is no longer allowed to work. Worse yet, for the first time in his life, Daniel  desperately needs government assistance simply to exist, a hard thing to swallow for a proud man.

 

In the first scene, Daniel is “speaking” (she is doing all the talking) to a female “healthcare professional,” a rather pretentious title for an assistant who has no medical (or any other) useful training.  After some preposterous questions (“Are you able to lift your arm as if to put a hat on your head?” Yes? Then you are able to work!), she promises that his case will be reevaluated and a decision will be made about his fate.  To emphasize the ridiculous, unnecessarily stupid hardship the government agencies put honest human beings through, Loach then leaves the screen black, after which the credits roll down.

This is just the first of many future heart-wrenching, offensive and humiliating conversations, marking the beginnings of what’s going to be will a long, tedious, and frustrating process, defined by meeting various functionaries (some harsh, some sensitive), filling out endless  forms; it doesn’t help that he is literally inept when it comes to using the computer or composing concisely his resume (Daniel doesn’t even know what CV is).

The “healthcare professional” deems that Daniel is physically able to work and thus refers him to apply for Jobseekers’ Allowance instead, with the stipulation that he must look seriously and fastidiously for a job. Daniel discovers you need computer skills, Internet connection, a smartphone and more than anything else patience in order to even be considered for a pension.

Early on, in  a scene set a job center, Daniel stands up for a single mother-of-two who is dismissed because she arrived a few minutes late. Katie (Hayley Squires) recently moved from a one-room hostel to a shabby  apartment in Newcastle, miles away from her family in London.  A kind widower (still in love with his deceased wife) and with no children of his own, Daniel treats Katie as a surrogate daughter, helping her fix up her place. More importantly, he succeeds quite quickly breaking the ice and forming meaningful bonds with her two young, vastly different children, Daisy and Dylan.

 

Daniel and Katie are just two souls, not exactly lost but definitely caught in the tangled, complicated, inhuman nets of welfare bureaucracy. Daneil thinks he deserves better treatment as a sick man and as a citizen, having paid his share of taxes all his life, And so does Katie, a woman with bad history with men, struggling to make ends meet in a big, cruel, unknown city.

Loach’s indictment of the harsh economy and the failing safety system of a society (that claims to be a welfare state) show that these factors  can not only force good-hearted, innocent people into despair and depression; they also can drive them into madness and suicide.

I very seldom cry during movies anymore, and yet Loach’s melodrama has reduced me to tears during two heartbreaking scenes, involving Katie.  A remarkable actress, Squires plays Katie without pathos or any overt sentimentalism.  For a long time, she is able to mask the frustrations and humiliations of a mother who cannot provide food and shelter for her children–until she, too, breaks down.

I saw the film at its first press screening, after which it received a warm and loud applause.  We all know that critics are more likely to boo than to shout bravo.

It was an indication that I, Daniel Blake, unlike other Loach films, should found a small but appreciative audience in the U.S., where his output is still known only to cineastes and a coterie of film lovers.