Ken Loach’s latest unvarnished meditation on Britain’s working class is his second film to pick up Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or, and deservedly so, for there could not be a more timely and resonant drama to emerge in the wake of 2016’s populist political disasters. Loach captures with unflinching temerity the trials faced by those most deserving of a nation’s sympathy, and just how little sympathy they are shown.
Manchester carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) suffers a heart attack at work, and is warned off working for four to six weeks. Seeking support, he is rebuked by the state welfare, and develops a rapport with a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), whose struggles mirror his own.
Ever the realist, Loach steers clear of stylistic flourish, so the only music on offer is that which Blake owns on cassette; the only colour palette on display the muted greys and browns of the industrial North. For Loach, the most arresting colours are those drawn from character, and Blake is a magnetic centrepiece.
Comedian Johns’ portrayal of this salt-of-the-earth labourer is unutterably beautiful. Blake is skilled, a hard worker, and a stand-up gentleman, a pillar of the community, ignored and maligned for his unrighteous unemployment. The sense of injustice he feels is one we feel with him – anyone who’s gone more than one round with Centrelink’s phone system knows how carefully the system is designed to deter those it is supposed to assist.
Blake’s relationship with Katie is key to our understanding – we see their generosity of spirit despite their circumstances. When Katie cooks dinner for her children and offers Blake a plate at her own expense, he knows rightly to take it, as to refuse would be to rob Katie of the last vestiges of her pride. Not that her lot in life will allow her that, as we see in one heartbreaking instance at a food bank.
To save the tale from being unremittingly bleak, Loach infuses it with the warmth of Blake’s relationships and the ridiculousness of their struggles with bureaucratic systems. The opening phone call is as vexing as it is hilarious, as is the sight of Blake pressing a mouse against a computer screen in an effort to fill out a form.
The character of Manchester and its blue-collar folk is alive in every frame. These are the people Tory rhetoric have worst scarred. These are the folks in Australia and the US voting against establishments, even as it hurts them. These are the people suffering for too long in ceaseless and surreptitious class war.
Remind yourself of our common humanity and see I, Daniel Blake as soon as possible.
I, Daniel Blake opens in cinemas on Thursday November 17.