For more than five decades Ken Loach has made powerful, realistic films about topics Hollywood steadfastly ignores. From “Cathy Come Home’s” bleak look at the inflexibility of the British welfare system to his twenty-fourth feature, “I, Daniel Blake,” the director has never wavered in his uncompromising approach to presenting social commentary on screen.
English comedian Dave Johns plays the title character, a Newcastle woodworker who suffers a heart attack on the job. He’s determined to get back to work as soon as possible but a paperwork snafu keeps him at home while his own computer illiteracy—“If you give me a plot of land I’ll build you a house but I’ve never been near a computer,” he says—stalls his plan to appeal his capability assessment. His once steady income reduced to dribs and drabs he protests, spray-painting, “I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve,” on a building. He is arrested and released but still waiting for his appeal date and the dignity of being treated like a human being, not a number on a file.
“I, Daniel Blake” is bleak. From Daniel’s grim spirit-breaking situation to Katie (Hayley Squires), a desperate single mom who prostitutes herself to make money to feed her kids, the movie is a portrait of nightmarish bureaucracy, privatized public services and despair. Brimming with the filmmaker’s passion and anger, it’s a movie that doesn’t offer much in the way of hope but plenty in the way of outrage. Loach’s approach is unsentimental, naturalistic. The first half contains some dark humour as Daniel tries to navigate Kafka-esque rules and regulations to collect his “jobseeker’s allowance” but by the time Katie is staving of starvation with stolen beans things take a bleak turn.