At age 80, Ken Loach shows no sign of awarding himself a well-deserved rest after a career directing films that now spans half a century. A unique figure who has never been tempted by the lure (and money) of Hollywood, he has resolutely made compassionate films about humble, ordinary people struggling to maintain their dignity in an often hostile world.
As one might expect, his career has seen its highs and lows - but at his best, Loach is renowned as one of Europe’s greatest filmmakers, and the Palme d’Or jury in Cannes has nominated his work a dozen times.
This year he went one better and his new film I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or outright. Deservedly so: it’s a simple, powerful story with a big heart, peopled by characters so well-drawn they feel utterly real and believable.
Its title character seems unremarkable – but as played by comedian Dave Johns, Daniel Blake is gradually revealed as complex and compelling. He’s a skilled carpenter approaching 60, a widower living alone in a council flat. He has suffered a heart attack, and his doctors have wanted him against working until he is recovered.
But without work, he has no money, so he must apply for benefits. He is assessed, unjustifiably, as fit for work, and then runs the gamut of trying to talk to someone as his local job centre. You’ll have guessed that when he phones, he’s put on hold for what seems an eternity whole soothing classical music repeats on a loop; later his face-to-face encounters with job centre bureaucrats prove frustrating.
The welfare system is portrayed as institutionally hostile to claimants. Daniel, like many of his generation, struggles to fill in an online form in the job centre; he can barely navigate the mouse. He tells its employees he could build them a house, but he cannot work a computer.
If Daniel finds himself in a stalemate situation, he isn’t alone. He strikes up a friendship with Katie (the excellent Hayley Squires), a young single mother with two children, who has been re-located to Tyneside from London. She too is struggling with the system after a spell in a hostel for the homeless. It’s in the context of this friendship that Daniel emerges as a big-hearted, generous man with great integrity; he’ll do anything to help her and her kids.
There’s an underlying tone of anger in I, Daniel Blake, aimed at a system that seems to presume claimants are on the scrounge. Yet there are other moods. For one thing, the film also has its funny moments. Daniel, a resilient man, is quick with a quip; Dave Johns’s comic timing is put to good use. But in parts this is also a heartbreaking story; it’s hard to hold back tears at one particular scene, when Daniel, Katie and her kids visit a food bank.
There’s a clear connection between I, Daniel Blake and Cathy Come Home, Loach’s groundbreaking drama about homelessness that was broadcast on BBC TV back in 1966. Both films cast a critical gaze on a society divided by haves and have-nots. It’s a sad but telling truth that I, Daniel Blake feels every bit as much of its time as Cathy’s sad tale exactly half a century ago.