The winner of the Palme d’Or, I, Daniel Blake arrives in New Zealand cinemas (after a successful festival run) with an impressive list of accolades.
While Ken Loach’s defiantly old school film is hardly groundbreaking in its execution or subject matter, the film succeeds because of its moving performances, undeniable heart, and ability to tackle heady subjects without alienating audiences.
The plot, which serves as a brutal indictment of the cruelty of the British welfare system, has undoubtedly bore the earmarks of the collaboration between its director and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty. The two form an effective partnership, ensuring that the film’s dramatic spark is lit immediately through an effective opening credits scene in which the audience overhears an interview between 59-year-old Daniel Blake (British stand-up comedian Dave Johns) and a benefits coordinator that subsequently goes awry.
The exchange begins politely enough but escalates to exasperation for both parties as Blake becomes impatiently dismissive of her litany of questions (and rightly so) – none of which have anything to do with a health issue he is suffering from. This scene sets a tone that stays strident and on-course throughout the film as it follows Daniel’s Kafkaesque encounters with the state welfare system as he struggles to deal with a labyrinth of bureaucracy which stands in the way of him appealing the denial of his disability benefits.
A carpenter living in the north of England, Blake recently had a heart attack and is pronounced unable to work. However, in a situation that is all too familiar to us here in New Zealand, he faces a system in which technicalities rather than compassion determine one’s fate.
This man vs the system drama is set apart from a wonderfully rendered odd-couple relationship between Daniel, a widower with no children, and Katie (the wonderful Hayley Squires), a single mother who has been priced out of London (a plot point that could have easily been replicated in Auckland). New to the city, she finds herself in the same social services office as Daniel, though as she is minutes late to her appointment she finds her benefit situation in limbo. The two form an unlikely bond and their platonic friendship becomes the beating heart of I, Daniel Blake.
While this is a film which could have easily become weighed down by its subject matter, the script succeeds in creating a lead character of warmth and tics. Anchored by Dave Johns’ dynamite performance, Blake is portrayed as the neighborhood fusspot with a social conscience; the sort of downtrodden character that you love to root for. However, he’s also his own worst enemy as time and time again he refuses to play by the government’s rulebook. His stunningly naturalistic performance imbues the films much needed levity and compassion.
Newcomer Hayley Squires excels in a difficult role, painfully concealing Katie’s suffering with a veneer of stoicism so fragile it’s impossible to hold back the tears once her façade finally shatters.
Dismantling the myths and demonisation surrounding benefit claimants, I, Daniel Blake isn’t based on a true story but it certainly feels like it could be. Inspired by Loach and Laverty’s encounters with various families across Britain who are dependant on food banks, this painfully moving film weaves a hefty political agenda into what is a decidedly human tale and succeeds in giving a voice to the voiceless. This film is a timely example of protest filmmaking, and one that is bound to leave the audience teary-eyed. If I, Daniel Blake is Ken Loach’s final film, as it has been suggested, then he truly has gone out punching.
I, Daniel Blake is in New Zealand cinemas from 27 October 2016.