Ken Loach is a unique Director. He always finds the ability to create naturalistically flowing narratives that we can relate to the real world. There’s usually a political message rooted within the story as well, which is conveyed effectively. In fact I am studying the topic of realism currently at University, and Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen is the case study. So I was intrigued to watch Loach’s latest work, I Daniel Blake, seeing as it was awarded the BAFTA for Best British Film recently. Not only that, the film received the most prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or. Having now seen the film, I can confidently say that I Daniel Blake is one of the most moving and effective films I have seen in a long time, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone, especially UK audiences.
The film tells the story of the titular character, Daniel Blake, a British citizen in his late fifties who has recently had a major heart attack. Unable to work on the opinion of medical experts, Daniel seeks out to rightfully claim Employment and Support Allowance. However, through a series of tests and examinations, Daniel finds himself unfairly unable to claim the desired benefits. Throughout the film we witness Daniel face the gruelling task of struggling to fight the welfare system of today’s state, whilst striking a friendship with single mother Katie, who is desperately trying to keep her two children sheltered and fed. That is a very basic plot outline, yet that is part of the beauty of this film’s storytelling. It’s simple in the best possible way.
There are many aspects of the film that are typical of a Ken Loach production, and they fit perfectly here. Firstly, there is a strong socially relevant message that is threaded throughout the entirety of the film. Loach himself has stated that there are many problems with the welfare state’s core system, and made a powerful acceptance speech at the BAFTAs on the current bureaucratic nature of society. It is clear that the film allows us to sympathise with the characters portrayed, as I found myself empathising with Daniel, as he is constantly frustrated and mistreated by the state. This message has obviously divided politicians, with some arguing that the film presents the worst possible situation a person can be in, and that it tries to convince audiences that everyone is facing this discrimination. However, I must say that there are certainly situations like this in society, and Loach should be admired and respected for tackling such a sensitive topic in contemporary society. Simply by watching a 100 minute long film, Loach has instantly moved me and heightened my interest in researching the welfare state, something that other forms of media may not have affected me as much.
Further to this, the realism of this film which is indicative of most Ken Loach films is for me what makes I Daniel Blake’s impact so powerful. Going into this film, I had no clue who any of the actors were. And after watching this film, I feel this is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Dave Johns (plays Daniel) and Hayley Squires (plays Katie) have very little background on the silver screen, so to me, Daniel and Katie seemed like real people living in the real world. Using a well-known actor may have taken me out of the narrative, but the use of unknowns for pretty much every role builds the illusion that I was watching a documentary, following a community that are vulnerable in a bourgeois dominated society. And the performances themselves are incredible. Dave Johns portrays Daniel Blake as an extremely sympathetic and likeable character who we truly care for and want to succeed despite the seemingly impossible odds. As for Hayley Squires, she fully deserves her BAFTA nomination for her performance as Katie. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sorry for an innocent family as I did when I watched Katie trying to maintain a decent quality of life for her two children. She goes to some disturbingly dark places within the narrative, yet what is most upsetting is that she is doing it out of unconditional love for her two children. Speaking of the children, they allow for Daniel to express his caring nature that layers his character as someone who we genuinely support. The chemistry between Daniel and Katie’s family is beautiful, and it makes the film’s overall nature even more touching. When discussing the portrayal of characters such as the staff of the job centres themselves, there are obviously cinematic liberties that must be taken. Yet to me, I found myself believing that these situations do occur every day, which makes the film all the more compelling to me. The poignancy of the film’s message is emphasised fantastically by these actors, who successfully represent a sector of society that only have each other to survive.
Moving onto the aesthetics of the film, the realism is as ever present as I Daniel Blake’s themes. The use of long takes with an absence of fast paced camera movement or editing conveys a sense of observance of a real situation. The film isn’t cinematic in that sense and therefore captivates audiences with a sense of realism that holds our attention on the characters, the dialogue (amazingly written in Paul Laverty’s script) and their environment. Shooting on location is a further positive of the film. By shooting on a high street or by a job centre, we find ourselves relating what we see on screen to what we see every day on the news and in the real world, constructing a world of sincerity that Loach transports us into. There are many moments within the film where the camera is static, which once again refers to the observant notion of the film. There is also a dominant grey colour pallet to the film, effectively representing the dullness and frustration that the characters are feeling, as well as seamlessly hiding the illusion that we are watching a construction.
I must also highlight that this is an incredibly sad film. This doesn’t mean that the nature of the film is melodramatically emotional. Far from it. In fact, it is because the film is so subtle in its techniques that allow us to care so much for the characters, heightening the emotional intensity of the viewing experience. Whilst there are moments of light heartedness that may seem at first glance as comedy, such as Daniel constantly being unable to work a computer, (literally running a computer mouse up the screen) these moments are in fact a major if indirect contribution to the looming nature of dread and anger that Daniel feels throughout the film. If you have read any other review of this film, there may be a mention of a certain scene set in a food bank. In fact, Mark Kermode stated that it was one of the most moving things he had seen in cinema. I had no idea what to expect going into this scene, yet It was incredibly touching in its execution and very nearly moved me to tears. An additional comment to make is that it may be difficult to understand the system if you are not accustomed to it, so when staff members talk about certain benefits that Daniel should apply for I was a little lost. However, upon reflection, that was the point. The film puts us in Daniel’s shoes, someone who has worked all his life but now finds himself alienated in the modern world. If he doesn’t understand what advisors are telling him, then maybe we shouldn’t.
To conclude, I Daniel Blake is an incredibly effective and moving story that fully deserves the praise that it has received. Not only is the film competently made in terms of its technique to portray a realistic environment that feels tangible to us, it also contains a crucially relevant social message that we can understand. Of course this film will not please everyone, but that is the best thing about cinema in general. Its subjectivity. I would definitely recommend watching this film, giving it the support that it undoubtedly deserves.
I give I, Daniel Blake 9.5 out of 10