Ken Loach returns from his Sinatraesque retirement with a film that leads you to question not Tory policy but the line between art and propaganda.
Geordie carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is unwell. He had a heart attack, nearly fell off a scaffold, and is waiting for doctors to clear him for work. The Kafkaesque welfare system deems him fit for work, however, so his benefits are stopped. Trying to appeal is impossible until a phone call from the ‘Decision Maker’, which should though have preceded the letter cutting off his benefits. Dan is forced onto the dole, where he must prove to a veritable Eichmann of the Welfare Office, Sheila (Sharon Percy), that he is indeed actively looking for work he is physically unable to perform. Humiliated Dan befriends another victim, Londoner Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been moved up North with her children Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan), by Tory plans to gentrify London by cleansing it of such benefits scroungers.
Watching I, Daniel Blake is like being trapped in an empty carriage with Jeremy Corbyn on a slow train from London to Newcastle, it’s like being bludgeoned on the head repeatedly with Michael Foot’s 1983 election manifesto, it’s like having John McDonnell endlessly throw Mao’s little red book in your face from an infinite supply. Screenwriter Paul Laverty artistically stacks the deck, loads the dice, and magnetises the roulette wheel, so comprehensively does he put his agit-prop puppets (poorly disguised as characters) thru the wringer in a plot so unrelentingly grim and ploddingly signposted that its ‘moving’ finale becomes unintentionally funny. My mind wandered so much I wondered whether Laverty and Loach tackling Free-born John Lilburne might have forced them to make actual art, rather than blatant propaganda, by dint of having to use allegory for their contemporary political points.
Daniel is told some employers want video CVs recorded on schmartphones. Loach might have been better served uploading a short screed decrying the Tories, because futility hangs over this. WH Auden said his verse didn’t save a single Jew from the Nazis, but Loach did force change once – with Cathy Come Home, in 1966; before the fragmentation of Britain’s TV audience. But who is he talking to now? I, Daniel Blake is absent from Savoy, Dundrum, IMC Tallaght, and has but 2 shows tomorrow in Cineworld where Jack Reacher has 8, on considerably larger screens. Loach is making clarion calls for the working-class, which will be viewed as art-house fare by some of the middle-class; champagne socialists perhaps. Watching this clumsy tub-thumping film, complete with Hollywood’s clichéd ‘precocious young girl’, is like having a screw slowly hammered into your head…
The only rational response to I, Daniel Blake is to fall asleep in the cinema or undo Loach’s work with the liberal application of screwdrivers at the nearest bar.