TIFF Journal: ‘I, Daniel Blake’

'I, Daniel Blake'

Movie Rating:


Fresh off of a Palm d’Or win at Cannes, Ken Loach returns with another of his achingly naturalistic polemics that feeds all of the 80-year-old filmmaker’s best and worst impulses.
‘I, Daniel Blake’ is devastatingly powerful and tragic, the sort of thing that will ruin any viewer’s day in the best possible sense.

It also springs from furious political anger against the class structure and deceptively harmful social services that is certainly meaningful and justified. If Loach eventually loses sight of his extraordinary human drama on the way to hammering home a political statement, it’s forgivable. After all, the least believable sequences in the movie are also the ones certain to claim the most tears.

Dave Johns stars as Daniel Blake, a fifty-something man who recently suffered a heart attack that left him unable to work. He’s forced to depend on social services, but finds the bureaucracy impossible to crack. In order to get benefits, he has to look for work and prove it, yet he can’t actually accept any job. No one in the welfare office makes things easier for him. If anything, their jobs exist to prevent people like Daniel from collecting benefits. In the middle of this ordeal, he meets a young woman named Katie (Hayley Squires). A single mother of two, Katie was forced out of London into Newcastle in search of benefits and struggles to keep her family and sanity afloat while butting heads with the same system. Together, they form a unique bond while the world at large seems determined to crush their spirits.

Needlessly to say, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ isn’t exactly the easiest movie to watch. It’s a downright painful exploration of a failing welfare state and the human casualties that the system leaves in its wake. Loach keeps his aesthetics simple to focus on the small human story with tremendous results. The performances are absolutely remarkable. It feels like life, which makes the painful twists and punishing turns all the more difficult to take. Johns and Squires form a beautiful bond in the midst of all the pain and misery, one so defined by tragedy that it’s almost difficult to watch the few moments of joy because of the inevitable sorrow that will come in their wake.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is another impressive film from Loach, who seems to crank out impassioned realism at will. He’s dabbled in this specific subject before with his famous TV movie ‘Cathy Come Home’ from 1966. There’s something poetic about the fact that he’d return to that subject now so many years later and the situation would prove to be just as dire, inhumane and unsettling. Although the filmmaker perhaps stretches credibility for maximum emotional impact with his final punchline, the impact is so intense that it’s hard to be bothered by it in the moment.

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