Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake is a charming tale of found family that stumbles into the unfortunate pitfall of having so much to say that it says very little.
I, Daniel Blake opens with Daniel discussing his recent heart attack with a ‘healthcare professional’ who refuses to tell him what qualifies her to assess his ability to work. He repeatedly asserts the fact that his doctors have told him he cannot return to work because of the massive health risk it would pose. The opening is extremely powerful; by using only non-diegetic sound and withholding the visual side of this conversation, Loach forces us to really concentrate on what is happening. We see Daniel visit his old stomping ground to pick up some scrap wood from the lads at the construction site. Daniel’s hobby of carving fish mobiles is a clever way of demonstrating his drive to continue working. It’s a less-physical version of the carpentry he is no longer fit to do.
The film really takes off when Daniel encounters Katie at the job centre. He intervenes upon overhearing that she is being refused benefit because she was just a few minutes late to her meeting. He asks the queue if she can take one of their spots, and the pair are both kicked out for causing a scene. Daniel finds out that Katie is a single-mother who has ended up Newcastle because there were no council houses available in London. With no friends or family around, no money and two kids to fend for, Katie is extremely vulnerable. Daniel immediately begins to support Katie and their friendship is touching. He doesn’t talk down to Katie’s children either; he has intelligent conversations with precocious Daisy and manages to get silent Dylan not only to talk but to sit still and sand fish. Briana Shann gives an impressive performance as Daisy, she’s a pleasure to watch.
I, Daniel Blake shows the difficulties associated with being a single mother unable to work because she wouldn’t be able to afford childcare and the contradictions within the English benefit system. Daniel is supposed to spend 35-40 hours a week seeking work despite the fact that he is medically unfit! Throughout the entire film, we only see Katie eat once, and it is in desperation when she is feeling faint in a food bank and prises open a tin of baked beans. Katie repeatedly forgoes food to make sure her children are well-fed. And that’s not the only need Katie is denied, the food bank doesn’t supply feminine products, forcing Katie to shoplift sanitary pads. In moments like this, the film strikes a balance between being political while keeping the audience emotionally invested.
From this point on, I, Daniel Blake gets a bit too preachy and loses much of the charm and poignancy it had so carefully built in its first half. Loach should have exercised more restraint.
The friendship between middle-aged Daniel and single-mother Katie is genuinely touching. The pair’s financial circumstances would have been enough to comment on Britain’s welfare system, and Daniel’s frustration with chasing the “decision-maker” and falling arseways through all of the strangling red tape is darkly funny. But I, Daniel Blake goes in with a far too hefty hand towards the second-half of the film and it has a distancing affect. Daniel and Katie start to feel more like vehicles for political allegory than characters. Perhaps this won’t bother audiences who are partial to plot-driven films, but it bothered this reviewer.(2.5 / 5)
I, Daniel Blake hits Irish cinemas on Friday the 21st of October.