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New Release Review - I, DANIEL BLAKE

Unable to work due to a heart condition, a carpenter struggles with the bureaucracy of the welfare system.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Ken Loach

Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan



For roughly its first half, I, Daniel Blake succeeds as a well-observed look at the trials of an unwanted underclass, but as the film progresses it becomes apparent that while Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have a clear message, they haven't got much of a story.



Earlier this year saw the release of Stephane Brize's The Measure of a Man, a compelling and insightful French tale of an aging man struggling to maintain his dignity while dealing with the bureaucracy of the welfare system. Now we have Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, a mildly compelling but far less insightful English tale of an aging man struggling to maintain his dignity while dealing with the bureaucracy of the welfare system. That the French ignored their own superior product while awarding their highest cinematic accolade, the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, to Loach's largely forgettable film is baffling.


Once again, Loach introduces us to a relatively unknown actor, Dave Johns, best known as a stand-up comedian and playwright. His titular protagonist is a Geordie carpenter who finds himself ordered by his doctor not to return to work due to the onset of a potentially lethal heart condition. It's not an opinion shared by the assessment officer at his local welfare office, who declares him fit for work and thus ineligible for a disability payment. Unwilling to risk his health, the only option open to Daniel Blake is to apply for Unemployment Allowance, a process mired in bureaucratic red tape.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of having to negotiate the welfare system, or indeed any sort of bureaucratic institution, be it a hospital appointment or a PC maintenance helpline, will be torn between laughing and crying at the array of obstacles Blake faces. Having never used a computer in his life, Blake is driven to madness in his attempts to complete what should be a simple online application, and you really feel his frustration at the lack of opportunity to deal with a sentient and understanding human.


Blake soon finds he's not alone in being victimised by the system. Following an altercation at the welfare office, he befriends single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), newly transplanted, along with her two young kids, to Tyneside from London due to a shortage of social housing in the over-populated UK capital. The two become friends, with Blake using his practical skills to help renovate her grim new home.

For roughly its first half, I, Daniel Blake succeeds as a well-observed look at the trials of an unwanted underclass, but as the film progresses it becomes apparent that while Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have a clear message, they haven't got much of a story. The film quickly descends into poverty porn soap opera clich├ęs - guess what line of work Katie resorts to? - while its central character increasingly behaves in a manner that seems contradictory to the figure Loach, Laverty and Johns have made us warm to. To a degree, Blake becomes his own worst enemy, displaying a level of stubbornness that's simply hard to swallow. Offered money for a wooden child's mobile he chiselled himself, Blake unbelievably turns down the offer. "Nah, I couldn't sell that, " he claims. Really Blake? Aren't you a carpenter? Isn't this an obvious way to make some much needed cash?


It's all too obvious that Loach doesn't have any real ground level experience of the struggles of making ends meet. Characters make verbal claims of how broke they are, but this isn't borne out by the ongoing representation of their situation. Where The Measure of a Man did an excellent job of keeping us aware of just how close its protagonist was to complete financial collapse, I, Daniel Blake is far too vague when it comes to the severity of its title character's economic precariousness. Does he have any life savings? How much does he receive per week on welfare, and how does it compare to his cost of living? These are the questions anyone with real-life experience of poverty will be asking during Loach's film, but the director offers no answers. Unlike the work of the Dardennes, Brize or Mike Leigh, with Loach's films you rarely get the sense that he cares all that much about his characters; they're simply a medium for his message.

I, Daniel Blake is in cinemas October 21st.







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