It is clear that Ken Loach, who turned 80 this year, will never retire. Making films about people who are disadvantaged and dispossessed has been for him a life mission since his television work in the 1960s, and long before he started collaborating with his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty. Loach is a social justice warrior whose work is often gritty and confronting, but there have been lighter and tender moments that have shone through in love across the cultural divide (Ae Fond Kiss), with a sense of fun (Riff-Raff) and mischief (The Angel’s Share).
The task of standing up for people who have to struggle with injustice and lack of opportunity has not been getting any easier, or less relevant. A tumultuous 2016 shows that fair outcomes for all, amongst other things, can’t be taken for granted in a democracy. No, it looks like the mission is only more pressing.
Someone suggested—was it Loach?—that Jimmy’s Hall in 2014 would be his last, but he has bounced back with one of his best. I, Daniel Blake won the director his second Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year. And the first was only recent, 10 years ago.
When Blake (Dave Johns) experiences a heart attack, his doctor says he should give up work, but the welfare department decides otherwise, on the basis of boxes checked or unchecked, that he is not a suitable candidate for sickness benefit. It’s okay for him to go on jobseeker’s allowance benefit, however, though for Blake this means a never-ending round of failed job applications and workshops to improve his CV.
Everything has to be done online, and Blake doesn’t know the first thing about the digital world. What are the prospects of a joiner just shy of 60 years of age who is good at his job but doesn’t know how to use a computer? A lack of skills in IT today is close to illiteracy.
Age has little to do with his sense of helplessness, as Loach ably shows. Indeed, Blake looks to be in rude health. Johns, otherwise known as a stand-up comedian, makes his character alert and engaging and that bad heart doesn’t seem to be the result of poor habits or health management.
Blake encounters a young woman with two young children in tow at the department. She is protesting that she was late her appointment for genuine reasons and her desperation and the inflexibility of staff cause Blake to step in. Londoner Katie (Hayley Squires) has just arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, sent north because of the lack of social housing. They soon become firm friends.
Despite the feistiness, Katie cannot afford to feed herself and her two children at the same time, or put money aside for their school uniforms. Daniel can help her turn her new flat into a home. He has a few tips on how to save on heating, like covering windows with bubble wrap, and he looks after the kids and builds her a bookcase while she is out.
In different ways, however, the bureaucratic trap in which they are each caught eventually pushes them to the end of their tether. Both characters carry on courageously, though the underlying desperation shows through. Johns and Squires both keep it real, with wonderfully engaging performances.
The story of Daniel and Katie is told in Loach’s typical workmanlike style. It can be irritating to see how the director is pulls openly at his audiences’ heart strings and Loach has little time for the aesthetic possibilities of his medium. Yet this film demonstrates exactly why Loach keeps on working. His didacticism gets the better of him at times, making it easy for us to see what he’s up to, and we always know where he is coming from, but he is a master at eliciting empathy for his characters and their world, beyond the beltway.
Loach is as good as he ever was at drawing us into the frame, and at getting us involved and engaged on a deeply empathetic, humanist level.
Also published at Jane's blog