Veteran British film director Ken Loach announced his retirement back in 2014 while attending a promotional press tour for his then current feature Jimmy’s Hall. Fast forward two years and 80-year-old Loach is back with a vengeance having recently scooped the coveted Palme D’Or. This is, coincidentally, exactly a decade on since Loach won the same award for his Irish war drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Since the 60s, Loach’s films (from Cathy Come Home to The Angels’ Share) have all possessed a socially critical tone, and his latest film I, Daniel Blake is no different. This time he’s given us an urgent societal drama, one that serves as a scathing remonstrance of austerity Britain and the cracks within the welfare system. Geordie comedian Dave Johns stars as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widower carpenter on employment respite after a near fatal heart attack. The opening sequence comprises a black screen accompanied by a frustrating phone call between Blake and a ‘healthcare professional’ who apathetically reels off a generic points-based questionnaire in order to determine his employment eligibility. From the first frame, Blake is at the heart of a bureaucratic nightmare, with a box-ticking assessment denying him sickness benefits and deeming him fit to work despite doctors’ orders. This Catch 22 sees Daniel begrudgingly apply for job seekers’ allowance, for which he must actively spend 35 hours a week searching for employment and subsequently proving it to his Job Centre adviser. This tale is intertwined with that of Londoner Katie (sublime newcomer Hayley Squires), a single mother relocated to a Newcastle council flat and desperately trying to stay afloat. The two strike up an unlikely yet tender alliance on their quest for dignity in an ever-shrinking welfare state. Written by long-time Loach scribe Paul Laverty I, Daniel Blake is constructed from extensive research and interviews gathered from a broad spectrum of voices, which makes the contemporary narrative all the more unbearable. Packed with detail, the film is heart-wrenching at times, with a scene involving Katie breaking down at a local food bank being a particularly brutal, façade-shattering moment.
In among the governmental jargon and class demonisation there is a humanistic air of humour and compassion even in the most precarious situations – the only light in a suffocating cycle of voiceless struggle. Ex-civil servants and food bank volunteers star alongside the main cast, which adds to Loach’s unapologetic tone. Johns and Squires deliver unnervingly realistic performances, jointly bringing an impassioned rawness to a nationwide issue. This unflinching film is a masterpiece, and Loach’s best work in years. I, Daniel Blake is a vital drama that sears itself to your soul and conscience.
I, Daniel Blake is in selected UK cinemas now. Find a screening near you.