Tom Griffiths reviews Ken Loach's new film, which gives viewers a glimpse into the heartbreaking realities of austerity Britain
There is a clarity and poetry to Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film about benefit sanctions, ‘I, Daniel Blake’. While being very much a film of the moment, it’s also a timeless Ken Loach classic. It is a masterclass in the kind of realist drama that, along with only a few others, he has fathered, and become synonymous with.
Loach’s films are often described as ‘understated’, a word that is damning with faint praise; a style of filmmaking, which though undeniably un-showy, is no less cinematic than forms that wear their filmic references and swagger on their sleeve.
Notice the elegance of Loach’s visual story telling at the DWP office, where Daniel Blake, widower on hard times who’s been signed off work goes to challenge the stopping of his benefits. Everything is washed out, cold and un-welcoming, white panels and grey suits. Then Anne, the one member of staff to show Dan any compassion, steps into the center of the frame in her pink cardigan, the only source of colour and warmth in a hard and inhumane place.
Take also the recurring motif of hand carved wooden fish that becomes a symbol for the innate creativity (Dan is a carpenter, a maker and fixer of things), imagination and desire to escape the drudgery of poverty, common to all the central characters in this film. Loach isn’t a point and shoot filmmaker, he is a meticulous artist.
Having been mauled by a system designed to strip away the dignity of its ‘service users’ in one of the most expressive and heart wrenching moments of the film,we view Dan from a child’s perspective peering through a letterbox only half understanding his distress. It is a film full of such tragedy.
The tragedy is all the more painful, not because of Loach’s great technical skill but because the Kafkaesque world he explores here is one lifted straight from the real experience of Tory Austerity Britain. DWP staff and PCS Union members are thanked in the credits for their assistance to the filmmakers in doing the research for the film, for everything here is real.
Some might argue this is a propagandist film, as did some commentators on BBC Radio 4’s Film programme. Though in a landscape where filmmaking with something pertinent to say about the state of the world we live in is all too rare, its clarity should be commended.
While there are moments that are certainly hard to watch, the sequence in the food bank and the breakdown of Katie, the single mum who Dan befriends, for example, they are never gratuitous, never ladled on and never manipulative. These situations are really happening every day in a country run, and run into the ground, by this government.
In the advance screening I attended there were tears and outbursts of rage from audience members after the credits rolled, not by people who had been forced to see truths they had been trying to ignore, though I’m sure they were there too,but by people who had encountered the ruthless system first hand and knew people who had committed suicide as a result of their experiences.
There are also moments of lightness, Loach has a particular way of capturing working-class humour, which is evident here too,but it is also a film designed to inspire. This is a film of great importance for the anti-austerity movement; it should be seen as widely as possible and used as a campaigning tool. For what it inspires is the desire to fight back and take to the streets. See you there. We are all Daniel Blake.
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