‘I, Daniel Blake’ review

What an un-embarrassable fraud Ken Loach is. For all the discussion surrounding “gaming the system” that this film has caused; the true mystery is how this flaccid protest statement has managed to become such a cause célèbre. The con artist at large is the purveyor of jejune, splenetic and needlessly adversarial portraits of the life of the ‘working-classes.’ These breathless rants capitalise on discord in a cynical and malignant fashion. I, Daniel Blake conflates being sparky for boorishness, sympathy for condescension and a powerful thesis for strident shrieking.

Ken Loach joined an exclusive club in May of this year, as a film-maker to have won the Palme d’Or twice. Only Haneke, Kusturica, Ford Coppola, Sjöberg, the Dardennes, Imamura and August have also been awarded the most coveted prize in the world of cinema multiple times. Loach has reached this lofty status, now inarguably one of the most influential practitioners of the art-form in its history, without seemingly ever learning how to operate a camera. The camera movements in his corpus are nearly uniformly guileless. Technical ineptitude (almost constant throughout Loach’s now half-decade spanning career) might be overlooked if he demonstrated an ability to see situations from more than one (ideologically entrenched) point of view.

We enter the film in media res. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is hectoring a public sector worker as they try to complete a health assessment to determine whether he is fit to return to his job. The protagonist, framed as the affable everyman, is still in convalescence after a major heart attack that forced him to take a leave of absence from his work as a joiner. His justified, righteous even, claim for benefits is obstructed by the highly insidious machinations of the state, apparently heartless, resolved to penny-pinch regardless of the human cost. As Dan, the ever so sympathetic protagonist, is radicalised during the film, he comes to the aide of the ailing single mother Katie (Hayley Squires).

These characters are merely hollow mouthpieces for Loach’s hackneyed agitprop, however. “There’s not enough jobs to go around,” Dan rudely pronounces at one point during a CV workshop, for example. Indeed it is incredible how thoroughly confrontational (and often downright unpleasant) the protagonist is towards people who are charged to help him. The film is intent on spraying its shrill graphite all over the place, regardless of the offence caused.

The film perfunctorily attempts a modern-day spin on a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with sophomoric and even juvenile results. There are numerous plodding and risibly pointed references to the opaque figure of the ‘Decision Maker.’ Although this has a factual basis (along with the concept of a ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’ period), the presentation of the mechanics of the process betrays the irksome, pre-determined quality to the film. This is emblematic of I, Daniel Blake’s tone-deaf approach to its subject matter, eschewing subtlety in favour of blunt emphasis. Anyone who has ever undertaken research on any scale knows the importance of starting with an open mind: Laverty and Loach demonstrably did not begin the process with that open mind.

I, Daniel Blake is arguably ageist with its highly patronising attitude towards the idea of older people using technology; at one stage equating it to a strain of dyslexia. Given that viewer is continually told that the protagonist’s problems are symptomatic of the plight of the poor, the character’s hopelessness at basic tasks, such as using a mouse, is played unwisely for broad comedy. Like so much of Loach’s filmography, I, Daniel Blake unapologetically harks back to the Lindsay Anderson genus of British Humanism. Its compulsion to polemicise within strict parameters the life of an unworldly ‘genuine bloke’ brings it into conflict with the far-reaching complexities of the digital age.

I, Daniel Blake, furthermore, lacks the structural rigour of The Wind That Shakes the Barley (comfortably the director’s best work since the Berlin Wall came down). Loach’s involving and moving film about the struggle for Irish Independence had the narrative backbone of charting the fate of two strong-willed brothers. His take on “Austerity Britain” seems built on sand by comparison. Loach and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, never succeed in grounding the character in their ultra-realist milieu. The protagonist’s narrative arc of his politicisation, evolving from a disgruntled member of the disenfranchised masses to a near Spartacus-style figure of cultural rebellion, never feels plausible. At times, the film recalls the abject Jimmy’s Hall with its baffling deification of its subject. The resulting air of the fantastical that the film assumes jars appallingly with the earthy, earnestness of the film’s message. The intended overtones of martyrdom therefore instead translate as a glib schematisation.

Loach and his willing accomplice Laverty pilfer tropes without shame or forethought from Kitchen Sink dramas. Most notably, we have the heavily signposted and decidedly tactless treatment of Katie’s would-be tragedic slide into prostitution. It is so reductive as to not warrant further elaboration in an effort to explain its motivation beyond “’Tory Britain’ is cruel to poor people”. On a similar note, a tirade-cum-applause cue in the final act is in particularly poor taste. Loach and Laverty seek to create scapegoats, detracting from the real and manifestly serious problem of poverty in this country after the Great Recession.

If the message is too self-conscious and didactic, the aesthetic is completely scattershot. Loach’s compositional work remains haphazard and poorly conceived, with Dave Johns repeatedly deprived of head room. Admittedly, I, Daniel Blake represents somewhat of an improvement in the cinematography (in line with The Angels’ Share) due to the telling contribution of rising director of photography Robbie Ryan. The film is still nonetheless bereft of that precious cinematic elixir: rhythm. It is his striking inability to deftly summon and sustain a mood through film grammar that marks Loach out as the prototypical “Bang Average” director. The almost but not quite periodic fades to black suggest a director incapable of stringing sequences together as much as the disjointed life of a downtrodden worker.
In spite of the ostensible longevity to Ken Loach’s career, his work has for the most part remained starkly one-dimensional: essentially, a succession of one-note diatribes. Loach threatened retirement after the catastrophe of Jimmy’s Hall, the question persists as to whether his antiquated tribal cinema has a place within the 21st century film-making landscape. I, Daniel Blake poses as a profoundly compassionate parable whilst in fact being an ugly and divisive screed.

Written by Joe Regan

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