British filmmaker Ken Loach made a name for himself in 1966 with Cathy Come Home, a BBC film about a fictional homeless couple that shocked audiences and raised public awareness of a growing social crisis in the U.K. Fifty years and more than two dozen films later, Loach returned to the topic with I, Daniel Blake, which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Finally making its way to U.S. theaters more than a year later, I, Daniel Blake proves that the 80-year-old Loach scarcely has lost a step when it comes to stirring up controversy and debate around the social issues of the day. The film portrays in painstaking detail a 21st-century British welfare system that seems designed only to frustrate and humiliate those in legitimate need of assistance — and may actually push some of the neediest into homelessness.
Loach's progressive politics have never seemed sharper or more purposeful. The director's righteous anger at government-sponsored injustice roils just below the surface of the film and informs every scene. Like virtually all of Loach's films, I, Daniel Blake celebrates the resilience of working-class people while illuminating personal struggles. That humanist perspective elevates a story by Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty above partisan politics to a place where almost anyone can relate to the film and identify with its characters.
Stand-up comedian Dave Johns stars in the title role of a recently widowed, 59-year-old woodworker who suffers a heart attack and is unable to work — on doctor's orders — while he recovers. In an absurd but true-to-life exchange that begins the film, a "health care professional" from a job center that administers public assistance asks Blake a series of inane questions ("Can you touch your hand to the top of your head?"). This leads to a determination that he is fit to work no matter what his doctors say.
Along with endless red tape, Blake's inexperience with computers and the internet (a common problem among today's aging population) makes appealing that decision very difficult. At the job center, he comes to the aid of Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) a young mother with two kids who was the victim of a revenge eviction and is having trouble feeding and clothing her family. Morgan and Blake become fast friends and form the sort of impromptu family support network that's required when long-standing social contracts break down.
Johns and Squires both prove adept at carrying Loach's social realist banner while helping to prevent the film from sinking into sentimentality or despair. Johns' buoyant disposition and real-life gifts for making people laugh balance a sometimes-difficult story, as does Squires' affecting performance. Loach and Laverty avoid even a hint of romance between their protagonists, which is something that other, less thoughtful filmmakers might not have been able to resist.
Predictably, many of the political objections to Loach's film in Britain have centered on whether its depiction of the job center and its employees is accurate in every detail. But the real-life stories on which the film is based are well-documented. The central issue raised by the film is whether anyone has cause to blame and demonize the least fortunate among us for their troubles. I, Daniel Blake makes the answer painfully clear.