A Ken Loach drama exploring the cruelty and social injustice embedded within the UK benefits system is never going to be the easiest sell. It’s as unflinching as it promises, exposing the reality of life for people at the receiving end of government policy, reducing people to numbers and the most desperate to deplorables. Whilst the misery is plain and evident, Loach allows a small glimmer of the innate kindheartedness of people to not be forgotten, which adds balance to a weighty drama.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a carpenter, approaching retirement and suffering with heart disease. His doctor declares him unfit to work and he reluctantly applies for out-of-work sickness benefit. Red tape, incomprehensible computer systems and mindless government automatons make claiming desperately needed income an impossible feat. At one visits to the job centre he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother of two, forced to relocate up north following two years of hell living in a hostel and now being threatened with “sanctions” for being minutes late to her first appointment in an unfamiliar city. Dan takes Katie and her very sweet children under his wing with grandfatherly compassion, fixing up essentials in their new, run-down flat and providing a much needed person to talk to. Both characters exhibit remarkable strength to keep going despite facing such adversity. They’re portrayed with subtlety and lightness, help by Johns’s background as a stand-up comedian.
Sometimes things can feel a little signposted -the end is clear from a mile off. And sometimes the performances from the supporting cast can feel slightly wooden but such quibbles are minor when compared with some of the jaw-dropping and brutal depictions of social reality. There’s a scene that takes place within a food bank, not the sort of place typically represented on-screen. The result is simple and shocking, but all the while the undercurrent of kindheartedness from the food bank volunteers shines through. I, Daniel Blake shows a little warmth alongside a lot of cold. It’s a small, honest and very timely portrait of the state of the nation.
Review by David Rank
I, Daniel Blake is out on 21st October in the UK. Certificate 15 (UK). Running time: 100 mins.