Two years ago, it was rumoured that Ken Loach’s Depression era dance hall picture Jimmy Hall would be his last film. It was disappointing to consider that a feature so toothless in comparison to his previous filmography might be his last contribution to the cinema. Fortunately it was not, as I, Daniel Blake, his thirteenth competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival, is a major work from Ken Loach, whose voice is compassionate as he angrily states his frustrations with bureaucracy and how it treats the people who are desperate for relief.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a senior who has spent his life employed as a carpenter in Newcastle, England. Once his practitioner tells him that his heart problems are so severe that he should no longer be working, after a lifetime of working and faithfully paying his taxes, he finds himself in the position where he is in need of government assistance. A technologically illiterate senior, Daniel, in order to be eligible for welfare, is required to fill out digital applications, provide curriculum vitae hard copies, and produce evidence of a mandatory thirty-five hours spent seeking employment. Though his difficulties move a few sympathetic ears along the way, there is no mistaking that this is a system designed to discourage applicants, but Daniel is resolved to claim what he knows he is entitled to, and finds ways to tailor these tasks to his available skill set.
As he tries to jump through all these hoops, he crosses paths with Katie (Hayley Squires), a young, single mother of two children, who is forced to move three hundred miles away to Newcastle in order to provide her children with a better quality of life than they have known in their one-bedroom apartment in London. To say that she has less than enough resources to make ends meet is an understatement: Katie cannot even afford to buy herself sanitary napkins, and has to find practical solutions to combat their hardships, like repeatedly re-gluing her daughter’s shoes which she has no money to replace. Daniel and Katie become mutually supportive figures in each other’s lives, doing their best to find ways to stretch their means, though it is soon clear that they are fighting a losing battle.
So often, social realist dramas tend to recycle tropes in order to prove whatever point they hope to make, while losing sight of the humanity of the real human lives that are affected by the difficulties they aim to portray. Part of what makes I, Daniel Blake so powerful is that none of its characters are merely used as props: it truly loves and cares about what happens to the people at the heart of this dilemma. Not only does it keep the film focused: Daniel, Katie, Dylan, and Daisy are the people that these films should defend and empower, and I, Daniel Blake never forgets about their humanity, or the small details that make them real. Even if I, Daniel Blake appears to consciously include obvious scenarios such as prostitution, shoplifting, or queuing in food bank line-ups, familiarity does not erase the truth of these situations, and the repetition bears a frustrated cry as to why these are still a reality.
While I, Daniel Blake is certainly a social realist film, it is also very much a melodrama, and Ken Loach skillfully navigates the intersection of these two genres to a beautifully resonant effect. While melodramatic, the depiction of struggle is balanced with its realism, and Ken Loach tells a story that is never strident. I, Daniel Blake understands when to hold back, knowing that true situations are compelling enough that an attempt to manipulate would weaken its power. There is a distinct clarity in the film’s message, in its criticism of bureaucratic apathy: the government is apt to see living, breathing people as a mere sequence of numbers in a computerized database, instead of living, breathing people. It has forgotten its reason for existence: to protect and relieve the citizens who have been the backbones of their nations.