Around the mid-point of Ken Loach’s quietly angry new feature I, Daniel Blake, one of the two central characters, a late twenties single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires), is walking around a food bank. Her and her family are in dire need of help, and as one of the volunteers shows her around, she leans in and asks if they have any sanitary towels. They don’t. Apparently they don’t generally get donated.
I, Daniel Blake is set in the UK in the present day and the welfare state does not provide women in need with free sanitary towels. And they can’t even get them at a food bank. It is this sort of quiet delivery of a simple and frankly quite horrifying fact that makes Ken Loach’s new film so brilliant. We may already know about a number of the issues that the film brings up, but it’s something else to see someone struggling with them. The empathetic nature of I, Daniel Blake is everything. It frequently makes you feel both angry and upset in equal measure, as political issues are shown to be personal issues, as they truly are.
Visiting the food bank with Katie is Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a joiner who has a heart problem and has been told by his doctors that he is unable to work. But a “medical-professional” working for the government disagrees, and so he must sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance, which is for too many people a bureaucratic hellhole that is near impossible to navigate, and filled with ridiculous catch 22s and poorly thought out rules. Anyone who has signed on for JSA, Incapacity Benefits, or anything similar will find a lot of what Dan goes through all too familiar. Ken Loach smartly shows us that this isn’t necessarily an issue with those who work there – one worker tries to help Dan but is reprimanded for not following the correct procedures – but more a systemic problem that starts at the top.
Ken Loach has always been a political filmmaker, but it’s been a long time since he’s made a film that has felt quite so current, urgent and angry. As if he is seeing a disaster happening in slow-motion and is crying out for someone to do something.
Squires and Johns are both excellent in the respective roles, with Squires particularly impressing with a courageous performance that calls for her to often look on the precipice of cracking, but still holding herself with a fierce strength. The aforementioned scene in the food bank ends with a breakdown though, in which the power of her holding so much in, leads to an utterly heartbreaking release that brought me to floods of tears.
In the last half an hour of I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach perhaps adds in a little too much in the way of sentimentality at times, with a few touches that reach for tugging at the heart-strings where one really isn’t necessary, but for the most part he plays things very simply and the film is all the more impactful as a result. Filmed in an unmannered fashion, with only a few moments of score and a few slow dissolves to black, this is the kind of unfussy filmmaking that never threatens to distract from the raw and horrible meat of the film.
Ken Loach clearly feels like the current Tory government has a lot to answer for, and he does a vital and utterly compelling job of making an audience feel why we should be paying attention and doing something about it.