When Ken Loach announced that 2014’s Jimmy’s Hall would be his final film, it was a sad day for cinema. A distinctive filmmaker quite unlike any other, over the course of his career the director of Kes and Riff-Raff has taken on the responsibility of representing a whole group of British people, the working class, who so very rarely have their voices heard in film. It’s because of this that Loach has made the leap from simply a brilliant film director, to a cinematic necessity.
At the time it came out, Jimmy’s Hall felt like the director was taking a gentle bow into retirement, with a film that had the same political edge as you’d usually expect, but without the broiling anger that often simmers and boils within Loach’s work. Since then, however, there has been a general election in which the Conservatives once again won power, immediataly putting the NHS and general rights of the working class under threat.
As if a flame to Loach’s fuse, this result seems to have infuriated/terrified the filmmaker to the point where, like some kind of political superhero, he and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, have returned for what could quite well be their finest and most important work to date.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes festival, I, Daniel Blake is Loach doing what Loach does best. Using a cast of relativley unknown performers and shot with little visual manipulation, it is a documentary-like telling of a humanist story, which is surprisingly uplifting in places and utterly devestating in others.
Dave Johns plays the titular character, a middle aged carpenter who has recently suffered a heart attack and so is forced to claim benefits. Deemed fit for work by a ‘health specialist’ at the job centre, but told not to work by doctors and nurses with actual qualifications, Blake finds himself trapped in an endlessly over-complicated benefit system whereby he needs to apply for work, even though he can’t work, just to get some money.
Whilst a film about a man trying to claim benefits may hardly sound like a thrilling prospect, Loach (perhaps only Loach) takes the concept and turns it into something incredibly raw and familiar. He and Laverty turn the cinema screen into a window through which we see an evergrowing poverty, a poverty which continues to thrive in the periphery of most of our day to day lives.
The painfully real way in which this is portrayed, is only heightened further with the introduction of Katie (played by a standout Hayley Squires) a single mother of two, who Daniel meets at the job centre. The relationship between the two is the beating heart of the film, a reciprocated relationship of kindness and compassion which the pair are denied regularly by the paper-pushing, meticulous rule-followers at the benefit office.
The presence of Katie and her two children also serve to hammer home the atrocious circumstances in which some families have to survive within. A sequence set in a food bank – a food bank with queues all the way around the corner – in which a starving Katie rips open a can of food to eat there and then out of desperation, is so powerful that it’ll make you cry buckets; a moment in which the young mother has to steal sanitary towels and basic toiletries, a moment which sets her down a path of prostitution, is blood-boilingly infuriating.
There’s something remarkably Dickensian about Loach’s modern day Britain, a grim reality in which people starve and are forced to exchange their self-respect for money. However, it’s important to mention that the film isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, there is warmth and humour that’s constantly found throughout, sometimes dervied from the least likely of places.
Whether it’s the scene in which Blake goes about his daily chores whilst waiting on hold to get through to the job centre – listening to that annoying music that I’m sure everybody is familiar with – or the smallest of moments in which the carpenter attempts to use a computer by running the mouse over the screen, there are pockets of laughter that are found in Laverty’s keenly observed writing.
The film is, however, a political statement first and foremost; one which could be best summed up by the central character, who explains to an employee at the job centre how the current state of affairs is “a monumental farce”. Forever wearing his politics on his sleeve, Ken Loach’s latest will undoubtedly be as polarising as ever – and if you’ve never been a fan of the director, I doubt that this will be the film to change your mind.
Fortunately for me, I happen to stand behind the politics and the core human beliefs of the filmmaker; that everybody, regardless of their situation, deserves to be treated with the respect, empathy and understanding that should be afforded to us by our basic human rights. With such a message, I, Daniel Blake is essential viewing which proves that, now more than ever, cinema, and indeed the country, needs more people like Ken Loach. An instant classic and contemporary masterpiece, you must seek it out.
I, Daniel Blake is released in UK cinemas on 21st October.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com