The adage that declares “the simple things in life are often the best” is one that can be applied to pretty much any endeavour in life and it certainly rings true when it comes to filmmaking. Often, movies become too complicated and convoluted in their desire to be all things to all people and it is filmmakers such as the Dardenne Brothers, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh whose commitment to social realism remind us that it is often a simple story that can resonate more, both intellectually and emotionally, than any of the myriad bloated blockbusters that are churned out with monotonous regularity. With his latest offering, Loach presents an achingly acerbic look into the lives of those who, often as a result of circumstances beyond their control, find themselves at the mercy of Government agencies that are failing in their responsibility to provide support and assistance to those most in need.
Daniel Blake is a great bloke. He has worked his entire life, cared for his wife through a long period of mental illness and enjoys a great relationship with his young neighbour, however when he suffers a heart attack and is unable to work, he finds himself at the mercy of the welfare system for the first time in his life. What should be a somewhat simple exercise – securing some income support whilst awaiting a medical clearance to return to work – becomes a nightmare of bureaucratic rigidity with roadblocks at every turn that would, if the consequences weren’t so severe, be hilarious in its absurdity. This is a guy who has spent his life making a meaningful contribution in so many ways, only to be treated with disdain the only time he finds himself in need of assistance. His plight is both infuriating and inspiring as he battles the system in a bid to save himself from physical, financial and emotional collapse, and the performance from Dave Johns in the title role is exceptional.
Likewise, Hayley Squires is remarkably authentic as Katie, a young mother also battling against a system that is completely devoid of compassion and common sense. The friendship that develops between Daniel and Katie – borne from a shared frustration with the way in which they have been treated – is threatened when Katie takes what she sees as the only option available to her if she is to keep herself and her family afloat. As is to be expected from Loach, there is nothing flashy about the setting, the characters or the circumstances in which they find themselves and the absence of high profile performers in the leads creates a greater sense of authenticity. They seem real and their experiences are very relatable; such as when Daniel is on hold for over an hour in his attempt to make contact with the welfare office.
Although utterly infuriating at times, I, Daniel Blake is wonderfully entertaining as the enjoyment comes from the sheer quality of the performances and a screenplay from regular Loach collaborator Paul Laverty that is, partly at least, drawn from real-life encounters and is neither contrived nor condescending. It also serves as a reminder that not everybody who finds themselves entrenched in the lower end of the socio-economic scale will find themselves mired in a world of crime and violence, but it certainly helps you understand how this might happen. The story encompasses moments of humour, anger, determination and despair, with Daniel ultimately resorting to a very public moment of rebellion that, whilst very amusing, is a sad indictment of the way he has been (mis)treated by those who revel in the power they possess to disrupt and destroy the lives of others. Neither Daniel nor Katie expect anything more than a fair go and it is not always comfortable viewing as they battle to maintain their self-respect, but I, Daniel Blake is a gritty, realistic, compelling drama that restores faith in the power of cinematic storytelling as a window to the world in which we live. This is a humble film about good people who persevere in the face of indifference and neglect and it works a treat, both as entertainment and social commentary. He might not wear a cape or have any superpowers, but Daniel Blake is an unequivocal hero, a symbol of decency in a world where such a virtue is increasingly redundant.