Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Run Time: 100 mins
Veteran director Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ electrified audiences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and took home the coveted Palme D’Or Award, Loach’s second win after ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ tackles an issue that is all too prominent in English society – the benefits system and how it fails the titular character who has suffered a major heart attack but is deemed fit for work. Over the course of the film, we witness Daniel’s struggle against the system and his befriending of a single mother, Katie and her two children who have been rehoused in Newcastle away from London, almost 500km away. The film stars Dave Johns as the titular character and Hayley Squires as Katie, Johns normally known for his stand-up comedy so this is a very different ground for him and Squires known for both TV and film.
‘I, Daniel Blake’ is hard-hitting, heart-tugging and at times, invokes feelings of sheer devastation. It is one of the best films of the year and is incredibly well-directed and acted, both Johns and Squires are perfect in their respective roles and their characters are so well-developed that as an audience, we really care for them. There are multiple scenes here which are very hard to watch and the film offers a very realistic take on the benefits system in England. What the film doesn’t do and why it doesn’t earn the full 5-stars is it doesn’t explore the opposite end of the spectrum – people who do take advantage of the benefits system and if the film had done this, it would have been much more well-rounded and justified in its approach.
Both Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are as mentioned, perfect in their roles. Johns who is most famous for being a stand-up comedian is fully developed as a character and we really feel him as he is constantly let down by the system and we feel his frustration and feel defeated when he is constantly knocked down by the system but always gets up again to fight. Even the simple things such as his inability to use a computer we feel sympathy for and the script always tries to drive his character forward so he can get himself out of this horrific situation. Hayley Squires is equally as effective as Johns as single-mother Katie and there are several scenes which are very hard to watch as she goes to extreme lengths to provide for her children and her wellbeing, one very tough scene to watch in a food bank. Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan are both perfect as her children who are also very well developed and their innocence and inquisitiveness adds another layer to this rich story. The rest of the cast are all perfect in their roles too and there are many great performances by those working in the benefits system.
The film is scripted by Paul Laverty, a frequent collaborator with Ken Loach who also wrote ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ and the script is near-perfect. It offers a great blend of facts, emotional arcs and the film is even quite funny in parts – I laughed at this film a lot more than I’ve laughed at other ‘comedy’ films this year. However, it is a very cynical take on the benefits system and I would have liked to have seen Laverty include examples of how people take advantage of the benefits system. Arguably that is what has driven the system to be so scrutinous and at times, it does paint a picture that this system fails everyone which it doesn’t – there are many people in the country who unfairly receive benefits which comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket.
The lack of score help to emphasise the plot points to the audience but where frequent collaborator, George Fenton’s score is used is meaningful and helps to elevate the drama but it is very minimalistic. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is equally raw and unflinching and the lack of colour helps to showcase the bare and deprived lifestyles that these characters have to live.
Overall, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a powerhouse of a film and one that took a few hours to digest after it had ended. The brilliant performances complimented by the tight script allow this film a chance to breathe and fully explore this difficult scenario. There are many difficult scenes in this film to watch and the fact that this film earns these scenes is testament to the great work it does behind the camera to develop this story and make us feel the way we do for these characters. I just wish the film was a little less close-minded and came more full-circle by exploring the opposite end of the spectrum and if it had done this, it would earn the full 5-stars. But as it stands, it’s a fantastic piece of work and is one of the best films that 2016 has yet to offer.