Amidst the glamour and glitter of Cannes, Ken Loach brings us all back down to earth – and in this specific case, austerity-riddled Tyneside – with an uncomfortable and painful bump. Loach was last in Cannes with the disappointing Jimmy’s Hall (2014), so there was trepidation going in. Were we going to get The Angels’ Share Loach or Kes Loach? Well, we didn’t quite get the latter, but it wasn’t far off.
I, Daniel Blake is the story of our eponymous hero (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner who has suffered a heart attack. Although on the mend, his greatest challenge is not the physiotherapy or the pills, but the Byzantine benefits system he has to navigate in order to claim income support.
The film opens with the first of many phone calls between Daniel and the state, which leads him through a maze of dead-ends and farcical encounters. Some of these encounters are incredibly funny – at least until you remember that countless claimants are having the very same conversations all over the UK. Loach pulls no punches here and his anger is palpable, despite Daniel’s own good-humoured attempts to remain civil and sane.
Daniel is well-liked by his former colleagues, who saw him keel over and almost plummet from the scaffolding at work, and he has a good relationship with his scallywag neighbour. We see why he’s so liked when he stands up for Katie (Hayley Squires) at the job centre. A new arrival from London, she has been housed in Newcastle with her two young children as there is no place for her back home.
As the two form a bond, and Daniel becomes a grandfather figure for her lonely children, we see them deal with the humiliations and frustrations faced by people in need. One tear-inducing scene sees Katie wolfing down baked beans at the food bank, weak with hunger and consumed with shame. But we all feel a little shame when we see the long line of people queuing for their bag of groceries.
As the film progresses, so the situation of both Daniel and Katie deteriorates. Yet Daniel is determined to hold on to his self-respect and he tries desperately to communicate this to Katie. She’s been reduced to stealing sanitary towels from the supermarket and worse, for while the government turns its back on people like Katie, Loach reminds us that there are plenty of others willing to take advantage of their plight.
Loach has been down this road before, with Raining Stones (1993): that time it was usurers who took advantage and this time it’s pimps.
Many of Loach’s best films have revolved around a decent man in difficult situations and in Dave Johns he has found the ideal actor to portray a man finding himself going through the inner circles of hell that are the benefits system. Johns oozes warmth and humour, while as Katie, Hayley Squires shows the vulnerability of a woman on the brink. It’s good to see this Ken Loach back. We’ve missed him and we need him.