I, Daniel Blake

Scott Wallace
14th Nov 2016

To just about everyone, the titular character of English director Ken Loach's second Palme d'Or-winning film (following The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006) is "Dan," but to the state, he is "Daniel." Loach's latest in his distinctive social realist style hinges on the distinction between state-sanctioned formality and personal empathy, as the sickly but resilient Dan tries to gain help from a system that won't recognise his circumstances.

Following a cardiac episode on the job, Dan (Dave Johns) has been told by his doctor that he is not fit for work, though a medical professional employed by the government has told him otherwise. Through the eyes of Dan, a congenial, stubbornly Luddite Geordie, I, Daniel Blake elucidates the struggle he faces; to receive benefits he must either wait weeks with no income to appeal the decision, or commit to searching for jobs that he is not fit to work. A chance encounter with young mother of two Katie (Hayley Squires) at the benefits office elicits his sympathy, and the two - both battling the same inhospitable system - become fast friends.

I, Daniel Blake is not as bleak as its synopsis suggests though. Dan and Katie are surrounded by goodness, but it's a goodness confounded by miles of bureaucratic red tape that is almost Kafka-esque in its absurdity. Help always seems within reach, but it is snatched away by circumstance and by bad luck, leading both Dan and Katie down unexpected paths. This is a fearlessly progressive film that demands justice for the the desperate people whose stories it tells, maintaining the utmost integrity by never judging or condemning them for the choices they make to survive.

Even at his most frustrated, Dan has a terrific, natural sense of humour, which contrasts beautifully with the more irrational, fearlessly maternal Katie's similar selflessness towards her children. Often in the same scene, I, Daniel Blake is both bitterly sad and bitingly funny. Despite its relative brevity, it provides a panoramic view of the denizens of its Newcastle setting who are simply trying to get by anyway they can.

As per Loach's extensive oeuvre, this is a simple film told in an episodic style, never opting for needless complexity. As such, it proves to be an acting tour de force, with both Dave Johns and Hayley Squires giving performance that are beyond words in their authenticity. Beneath Dan's irreverent exterior there is bubbling frustration and sadness that Johns captures effortlessly with the utmost realism. Squires brings a quiet intensity to the role, balancing Katie's intense pain with her bravery - the same bravery she has instilled in her children Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Morgan).

Even at the age of 80 and nearly fifty years after his first feature film, Ken Loach has made a thoroughly modern, even prescient piece of cinema that may be one of the most profound and important works of his career. I, Daniel Blake is a quiet masterpiece, equal parts anger and optimism that already feels like a classic of British cinema. This is an unmissable film event.

I, Daniel Blake opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 17th.