I, Daniel Blake

by Toby Woollaston


Many of us have experienced the stranglehold of bureaucratic red tape. It’s an unfortunate but arguably necessary part of the society we live in. I, Daniel Blake gives us a portrayal of such struggles with Britain’s social welfare system and, as such, is fiercely critical of it. Directed by Ken Loach (The Angel’s Share, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and written by Paul Laverty who has penned many of Loach’s recent films, I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is no surprise then, that this is a masterclass of film-making told by a master of British social-realism. Set among the milieu of Geordie accents in working class Newcastle, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) works as a carpenter who has to stop work when he suffers a heart attack. Enter the British social welfare setup – a labyrinthine and hostile system that acts as the film’s pseudo antagonist. Caught in a bureaucratic loophole, Daniel and his new found friend, Londoner and solo mother Katie (Hayley Squires), struggle with the realities of poverty in a so-called wealthy nation. The irony of a simple story set against the backdrop of a complex welfare system is highlighted with superb performances by Johns and Squires, which are all the more moving for their restraint.

Loach’s ability to capture the exact beat and tone of everyday British life without drawing attention to his method of film-making is remarkable. He lets his camera operate with very little flair, often observing his subjects through a lens that quietly and seamlessly lets them struggle their way through a contemporary landscape. This is the way social-realist cinema should be shot and it is great to see Loach stubbornly stick to this formula. Over his long career he has resisted the alluring appeal of Hollywood, and thank goodness, as I can’t envisage a Hollywood rendition of impoverished Britain … nor would I want to.

I, Daniel Blake is at times very belligerent towards its cause, but gracefully holds its subjects in a compassionate light using equal parts of humour and despair. The result is an intensely moving film that highlights a genuine concern with the British social welfare system. Moreover, its relevance to New Zealand viewers should not go unnoticed, as Blake’s concerns are already a reality in our own backyard. As such, I, Daniel Blake operates as a parable for the less fortunate but should remind many of us that we are only a turn from similar circumstances.

Star rating: 5/5

See published review here.