I, Daniel Blake Review: Tough but Truthful

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From Ken Loach and Paul Laverty comes I, Daniel Blake, the story of the eponymous Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) who, after a heart attack forces him from work, struggles to work his way through the benefits system as he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum uprooted from London and going through something similar.

It should come as no surprise that this is the most politically potent film of the year. In a time of turbulent politics, Ken Loach has crafted less of a movie and more of a documentary, which aims to capture the struggle of those in poverty as they are forced to abandon dignity to get by.

Tough to watch, yet too important to look away. I, Daniel Blake has the guts to say what needs to be said and it does so in a workmanlike fashion. There’s no muss or fuss to the direction, Loach is an old hand at this sort of unpretentious style and his bare bones approach to filmmaking serves the story well.

There’s also only one stylistic choice, the option to have none. The absence of score and a muted colour pallet keeps your focus firmly on the characters and their journeys. It’s their story you follow and their personalities which capture your attention.

Dave Johns, a stand-up turned actor, as Daniel Blake serves the material well, even if the films adherence to ‘realism’ can feel a little raw at times. Yet, I respect the straight cut nature of the drama and John’s nails the characters weary perseverance as he struggles to use the computer or as he listens to the same holding music over and over again.

However, it’s the stellar performance from Hayley Squires that gives the film its emotional beats. As she struggles to raise her kids you feel every nuance of her despair and the film’s best moments, a stand-out scene in a food bank, come from her and the way she inhabits the role.

Had the writer not given this character life, the film would feel far too much like a documentary, but, in the end, it’s anchored by the touching relationship between these two victims of the benefits system.

It’s indeed a gruelling watch yet the moments of pathos and light-hearted humour do help to lighten the mood. As with most British tragi-comic fare, there’s a great sense of sarcastic stiff upper lippedness to the proceedings but it never feels too overwrought or unnecessary.

As much as there’s a touch of melodrama towards the end it must be said that the film has the right handle on what sort of film it needed to be. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t deny and it commits to telling a piece of the truth and refuses to put a positive spin or a happy ending on it.

It’s not exactly a film you would want to watch again and again but as a piece of fiction, telling a very real and difficult story, it does so with diligence and determination.

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