Working stiffs getting screwed by the system – that theme has always cut deep with veteran British filmmaker Ken Loach. An old-school social realist, the 80-year-old filmmaker’s creative output has always spoke up for the exploited lower classes, from a BBC play about the homeless (1966’s Cathy Come Home) to a treatise on Irish guerilla fighters (2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley).
I, Daniel Blake, a new Loach landmark which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, sums up everything that has kept he muckraking motor running for decades. The title character, played by comic actor Dave Johns in a performance of ingrained decency and riveting restraint, is a 59-year-old carpenter who’s just buried his wife and suffered a heart attack. Blake’s illness prevents him – on doctor’s orders – from returning to work, which means he can’t pay the rent on his low-cost, Newcastle housing unit without aid from the welfare system. When that help is denied, our everyman must go through the appeal process.
The director and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty handle the byzantine roadblocks set up to prevent Daniel from getting his due with bruising humor and barely concealed rage. (Clearly, their concerns stretch to our own borders as well as Great Britain’s.) Loach is nothing if not a humanist, one who sees what should unite us all in times of duress, and this is arguably one of his best and most accessible movies to date.
The computer-ignorant Blake, floundering in a bureaucracy that’s “digital by default,” finds a sense of family in another victim of the system. She’s Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two forced out of her London flat and into selling herself to make ends meet. Loach, understandably, stacks the deck in favor of these people society has labeled “losers,” but Johns and Squires play them with indelible simplicity and feeling. When Daniel risks arrest by scrawling his plight on the side of an official building, he rouses cheers from passersby. It’s hard not to cheer along.