Friday, 28 October 2016

I, Daniel Blake

A hard-hitting, heartbreaking masterpiece about a decent man who’s failed by the state

Written by Jason Solomons

Ken Loach’s work may not always be to your taste politically, but his stature as a director was confirmed earlier this year when his latest drama, I, Daniel Blake, earned him his second Palme d’Or at Cannes.

With its story of a Newcastle man looking for work but stuck in the bureaucratic nightmare of the benefits system, it may sound like typical Loach, but it’s one of his very best films: urgent, vital, angry, heartbreaking, funny, empathetic and deeply, deeply concerned with the parlous state our nation is in.

And this is what’s key about I, Daniel Blake. So often, Loach’s films (many of which I’ve loved) feel like they’re about people miles away from me – be it railway workers or fighters in the Spanish Civil War. I don’t know these people, although Loach’s remarkable gift for realism has always made me feel as if I do, by the end. But you can feel the breath and the bite of this new one, its chill wind blowing on your cheeks. Daniel Blake is a chap you might know. He’s a joiner, a widower who, at 59, has just had a mild heart attack, which has seen him signed off work for a few weeks, probably for the first time in over 40 years. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

He’s a funny, decent man, but now the system is playing him for a fool. He’s flustered by online forms, made to feel out of time by computers (‘A cursor? Well, that’s a bloody apt name for it, aye’) and out of luck by CV workshops.

The automatons who work at the jobcentre are no help. Nor can they be, constrained as they are by rules, jargon (‘You should receive a call from the decision maker shortly’) and intractable processes forcing them to apply sanctions which squeeze people like Daniel ever further into the margins.

Of course, Daniel starts out bold and brave: ‘They’ve picked a fight with the wrong man, I can tell you.’ But soon even he feels the pressure and the damp seeps into his bones.

We feel it with him. The pain, the fluster, the sick worry is written on the face of comedian Dave Johns, who plays him. As the brilliant opening credits show, he’s faced with a system that doesn’t get jokes or make allowances for anomalies or human failings and feelings.

The other layer here comes when Daniel meets a single mother, Katie (superbly played by Hayley Squires, like a bird with a broken wing), shunted up North by the housing system, which no longer has room for her near her family in London. the pair strike up an oddly tender relationship – Daniel helps her with repairs in her house and babysitting; she gives him family and purpose.

It is Squires’ Katie who provides the film’s most extraordinary scene, set inside a food bank, outside which the queue stretches around the block. It’s a shock to see this in modern Britain and even more troubling once we get inside. Your heart cracks along with Katie’s as she sobs with hunger and shame: ‘If my mum could see me…’

I know, I know. I’m making it sound grim. Well, it is grim out there, says the movie. But I, Daniel Blake isn’t grim to watch. It burns, it crackles, it makes you laugh and seethe, feel the frustration and the needlessness. It’s so unadorned by stars, conventions, effects or film- maker fuss that it arrows straight to the point. If there’s a human being who can argue with its passion and ideals, I don’t want to meet them.

Something is wrong out there in Britain. People are poor, hungry and hurting. And we all know it. It just takes Ken Loach and I, Daniel Blake to prove it, to show us exactly how the news and the politics are affecting real people, people we know. Love and dignity are being flushed from our world and compassion is a fading commodity.

I, Daniel Blake is simply a masterpiece of modern realism, a rare film no one can afford to miss.

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