With 'I, Daniel Blake,' Ken Loach Is Back at the Top of His Game

Ken Loach’s 'I, Daniel Blake' offers a precise account of a reality at once cruel and touched with compassionate solidarity

Hayley Squires and Dave Johns play the lead roles in “I, Daniel Blake.” Their predicament becomes our own.

“I, Daniel Blake,” the new film for which British director Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or at the recent Cannes Film Festival, is set in Newcastle, England – shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan to seem like a place that is inhabited, but not really lived in. Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old carpenter who is recuperating from a heart attack. He still misses his wife, whom he cared for until she died of cancer. They never had children. He receives a welfare pension, which is then cut off without any explanation. In a scene at once funny and shocking in its obtuseness, he is required to take a test involving a series of questions that have nothing to do with his heart attack. The test determines that he is ready to go back to work, though his doctor objects.

Daniel has no choice but to start wandering the streets in search of work, knowing that his age and condition leave him little hope of finding any. He is also asked to email his resume to various ad agencies and potential employers, but Daniel is one of those people who have never really operated a computer. Though his attempts to master the new technology yield some humorous situations, the humor is of a bitter type.

During one of his endless visits to the welfare offices, an employee kindly extends her meeting with him by a minute and is then reprimanded by her supervisor. (Loach offers a sharply ironic account of Daniel’s attempts to reach welfare services on the phone, a situation well known to anyone who has experienced anything similar.) In the course of this visit he meets Katie, a single mother of two. She has moved from London to Newcastle after being evicted by her landlord – against whom she lodged a complaint – and after spending two years with her children in a homeless shelter.

The welfare officer Katie has come to meet refuses to see her, since she arrived late, after taking the wrong bus in a city she still does not know very well. Daniel comes to her defense, and the two form a bond. This is not a romantic link; Daniel uses his carpentry skills to help Katie settle into her new apartment. It is mainly a bond between two social outcasts who run into the same wall of indifference when they approach institutions that seem less concerned with helping the needy than with saving money at their expense. In this sense, “I, Daniel Blake,” written by Loach and Paul Laverty, his longtime writing partner, is a sharp attack on British welfare services under a conservative government.

Legacy of realist cinema

Almost from the first moment, we know we are on the usual territory from which the 80-year-old Loach has almost never strayed since embarking on his long career in the mid-1960s. When “I, Daniel Blake” was shown at Cannes and won the Palme d’Or, some claimed that Loach was repeating himself. But who cares, so long as what he offers is once again filled with a vibrant humanity. As he did in his best prior films – and “I, Daniel Blake” is certainly the finest movie he has made since the beginning of the current century – Loach draws on the legacy of realist cinema, anchoring the movie’s didacticism in the precise account of a reality at once cruel and touched with compassionate solidarity.

Some of the movie’s scenes are wonderfully precise, many are poignant, some are difficult to watch; but all are filled with the clarity of Loach’s best work, which avoids sentimentality in favor of a direct, unflinching gaze. The two heroes win our hearts and break them; we fall in love with both, and their predicament becomes our own. Perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie is the one in which Katie, having reached a state of true destitution, comes to a food bank and is so hungry that she opens up a can of beans and, before the eyes of curious and appalled bystanders, drinks up the liquid with a passion that only the truly hungry can feel. The scene is a humiliating one, but humiliation is an inseparable part of Daniel’s and Katie’s lives, and their efforts to grapple with it and overcome it are among the film’s most touching aspects.

As is usually the case, Loach makes masterful use of his cast, whether in lead roles or in the smallest of parts. Once again he has chosen actors who are not stars, and casting them provides authenticity and occasional surprises. Hayley Squires, an actress and playwright, is excellent as Katie, and Daniel is played by Dave Johns, known mainly for his work in comedy. But while other comedians cast in dramatic roles throw themselves into the drama with excessive relish, Johns does not, and his humor comes through precisely at the most frustrating moments his character must endure. He plays Daniel with remarkable restraint, even in those scenes when his patience is worn thin and he is overcome with anger.

Both Johns and Squires seem completely subsumed by their characters, but Loach is nonetheless able to observe them from a distance that highlights their double standing as particular individuals and representatives of Britain’s disenfranchised working class. That is what Loach’s filmmaking does at its best: it pulls us deeply into the reality on the screen and causes us to identify with the characters fully. But it also confronts that reality and those characters from an angle that allows them to become a kind of mirror held up before Britain – a mirror showing images that are ominously critical, yet crystalline in their humanity.