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I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s new dramedy presents man versus the welfare state

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The Kafka-like bureaucracy of the welfare state complicates life for two well-intended but struggling working-class folk in Ken Loach’s new film (penned by his frequent collaborator Paul Lafferty). Recovering from a heart attack, carpenter Daniel (Dave Johns) is caught between medical disability and employment. There are the endless rounds on telephone hold; trips to the job center, where he’s told to come back with a resume; a round at the public library trying to learn how to use a computer. (Daniel has a delightfully prickly but affectionate relationship with his neighbor, a technically unemployed young man who has nonetheless mastered the modern world, and runs a gray-market internet-based business importing athletic shoes from China.) 

Partly to stay busy, he takes a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires) under his wing. He helps out with child care, and does odd jobs around her flat, grateful for the sense of purpose. Contrary to digs about the lazy welfare class, Daniel longs to work, and his quiet ordinary life is defined by it. Its absence is felt keenly.  Katie, too, struggles to make it all work, and her collapse in a food bank is shattering to watch. 

In a society — both in the U.K. and the U.S. — that seems ever more bureaucratic and tech-driven (customer service is a robot voice), while simultaneously safety nets fray, Loach’s film is exquisitely on point. It’s a heartbreaking, heartwarming and infuriating work, though not without some humor. There’s no pat solution here, but Daniel has one Pyrrhic victory worth a cheer.


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