Filmmaker Ken Loach has been the voice of blue-collar workers, the homeless and downtrodden in Britain for about 50 years. These are the people he relates to and he tells their stories eloquently, often in realism so stark you feel close enough to touch his characters or join them on the unemployment line. His storytelling is a gift.
Loach started his illustrious career in 1967 with Poor Cow, a film about a woman whose boyfriend is sent to prison, after which she takes up with his brother and makes a series of bad choices. Over the years he has made many noteworthy films: Ladybird Ladybird (a mom fights to keep her kids from being taken away by social services); Land and Freedom (a young man from Liverpool fights fascism in 1936 Spain); and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (two Irish brothers fight British forces), which won the top Prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or, in 2006.
I, Daniel Blake has won Loach his second Palme d’Or, and its themes are in keeping with his social consciousness. The film is so tightly written, the characters so well developed and the execution so perfect that if Loach retired from filmmaking tomorrow, this heartbreaking working class film would be a fitting coda and bookend to a career that has been firm in its mission.
A heart attack has brought the career of carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) to an end. As a white widower living in low-income housing, he stands out among his neighbors who tend to be African and Middles Eastern immigrants living in Britain and trying to make ends meet. At just 59, Daniel looks years beyond his age. When government assistance, as administered by the city of Newcastle, stops and he is forced to look for work, even if he is unable to hold a hammer, he gets stuck in a quagmire of red tape and a downward spiral that is pitiful.
Along Daniel’s road of misery and dehumanization he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mom with two biracial kids. She too is getting the run around from social services as she hunts for food, a place to stay and a job. Daniel, Katie and her kids become an extended family. The disparate souls support each other as best they can. Their chances of thriving are minimal and basic survival is equally bleak.
The story, as written by Loach’s sometimes writing partner Paul Laverty (Carla, Bread and Roses), unfolds like an absurd misunderstanding, that turns into a disagreement, then a heated dispute, then a clash that ends with tragic consequences. And what you see is made extremely disastrous because the Daniel character is so likable. He’s a man who has worked his whole life and deserves kindness in his later years. It’s a kindness he never finds in a government that is suppose to protect and serve him.
The characters stick with you. Their challenges are monumental. The unyielding sorrow in this universal story is painful and scary. Most people are a couple of pay-checks, one illness, or a job loss away from homelessness and Loach’s direction and Laverty’s script makes that plain as day. You feel for Daniel and Katie, and you despise the bureaucrats that make their lives miserable. But you know there is no easy answer to their situations.
The production design by Fergus Clegg and Linda Wilson strips everything down to the essentials. Social services offices, Daniel’s rudimentary apartment—there are no flourishes. Ditto with the costumes by Jo Slater which look like they are from a thrift shop. The lighting design and overall cinematography by Robbie Ryan (American Honey) never embellishes. George Fenton’s (Bread and Roses) music might provide the only bounce in the film. Jonathan Morris’ astute editing cuts scenes to their core. Over all, the production elements lend themselves perfectly to Loach’s ultra realistic style.
The supporting cast is virtually unnoticeable, which in a film like this is a high compliment. There is a scene in which Daniel finds out that Katie is living a double life. This dramatic moment stands out because the audience is not expecting it, but also because of the way the two brilliant actors interpret the scene. She is like a daughter to him, but some kind of sexual electricity flows between the two. The underlying emotions that drive Daniel to become her protector, and Katie to be a pragmatist, are exhibited with nothing less then genius from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires. This is acting at its finest.
If becoming disabled and broke is not a pretty picture even in socialist-leaning England, imagine what it will be like for the working poor in the U.S. as their safety net disappears when the new budget cuts kick in. That’s why Loach’s ode to proletariat struggles is so timely. It’s as if he’s ringing a warning bell, an alarm he’s been sounding for 50 years.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.