Political activist, auteur and custodian of Britain’s kitchen sink, Ken Loach has reeled in a second Palme d’Or for his latest parable. A typically savage and angry comment on the inner workings of Britain’s benefits system, I, Daniel Blake is a humanist story about the reduction of people to numbers and blips on a spreadsheet in today’s world. Fuelled by the director’s trademark socialist principles and dedication to realism, it’s an efficient attack on the current Conservative government and a cry for change. It’s an emotional, topical melodrama with all the hallmarks of its esteemed director. However, one can’t help but feel this is just another nuts-and-bolts assembly for him.
Much like his 1966 classic, Cathy Come Home, the new film is a succinct story of the ordinary person being trodden on by forces beyond their control. The ordinary man in question here is a 59 year old woodworker called Dan (Dave Johns). When Dan has a heart attack, he is told he can’t work by his doctors. In the ensuing panic, he finds himself struggling through the bureaucratic mess of Britain’s welfare system. He finds himself being told wrongfully he is ‘fit for work’ by health workers, being bamboozled by countless forms and ignored by the upper echelons of the system. In his confused stagger through a broken system, he finds friendship in young mum Katie (Hayley Squires), realising that human kindness must prevail over the cold hand of the state.
And that’s always something Loach has been fond of. In the harsh world his characters are examples of the gentleness in humanity. Dan is almost insurmountably kind, good-humoured and pleasant, complemented by a solid performance from Hayley Squires, whose character’s struggle to keep afloat never overruns her drive to care for those close to her.
There are points though, when the film feels almost stiflingly ‘Loachian’. When the film begins with a dispassionate healthcare professional arguing with Dan over the phone, there’s this familiar feeling of being ushered efficiently into what is a political rally cry above all else . No doubt a lot of love, care and research has been put in, but this is Loach evoking familiar emotions through familiar methods. For instance, he and writer Laverty reduce all characters to the usual binary of good and bad, bludgeoning the audience with the idea of the evil, gigantic government against the inherent goodness of the average Joe. Dan’s trips to the application centre depict an emotionally disconnected force of workers who lack any sense of humanity. It’s damning of the system. However, we’ve seen it all before from the creative duo.
That’s not to say that Loach’s films are not necessary and I, Daniel Blake not incredibly current and important, it’s that this sort of social realism by numbers feels to fall short of what might be possible. It’s as if Loach is the man shouting through loudspeakers at a Jeremy Corbyn rally. The messages may be powerful and their sentiments true, but the form has become a little redundant and blinding amid the noise. This social realist melodrama that the director has been doing for years is now a little archaic. The tropes are so recognisable that the impact he may want is simply not there.
I’ Daniel Blake is by all accounts, a necessary film. It’s a required dissection of a system that has ruined and will continue to ruin lives if not looked at. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that this film is a case of going through the motions, with Loach’s political voice dominating his creative voice and drowning what could be both much more innovative and impacting.