Fifty years after the incandescent Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, winner of the 2016 Palme d’Or at Cannes, also concentrates on a life determinedly crushed by economic circumstances. Stand-up comedian Dave Johns is warm and skilful as widower Dan, a 59-year-old joiner recovering from a heart operation in his housing estate in the north-east of England. Essentially buoyant, Dan has been a grafter since his teens, and has never had to negotiate the UK benefits system. But now he faces homelessness, simply because he can’t work out how to fill in the various and deliberately too-complex online forms. Half bemused by bureaucratic indifference, half-wretched, Dan sees his circumstances worsen.
Using someone who loses in a system to attack a system is of course quintessentially Loach. And I, Daniel Blake’s knockout Dickensian characters are consummately Loach too. The woman at the benefits office who, like Henrietta Nupkins in The Pickwick Papers, finds fault with every word. The pretty single mother collapsing at the soup kitchen, cramming cold beans into her pale mouth. And yet I can’t help feeling that this is a film that sometimes (paradoxically) lacks true human interest — because it lacks narrative freedom. We all know how it will end.
Nobody makes films like Loach. A bit of agitprop, a bit of guilt creation, straightforwardly shot, and with what feel like semi-improvised and very open performances that are often dazzlingly laconic (Martin Compston in Sweet Sixteen) or unforgettably moral (Ian Hart in Land and Freedom).
But counter-intuitively, Loach’s films can lack individuality, as though he burned away some of his artistic nuance in favour of a repetitive sentimentality about the left. Is his position prophetic? Or regressive? There’s a palpable nostalgia implicit in Loach’s longing for not just the early days of Labour, but also the radical old England of William Blake, scourge of tyrants. But Loach’s virtue is also his refusal to change, and his power is prodigious, Spielbergian even. Very few people can hit you in the thoracic cavity like Loach. Of course I cried, as I always do (slightly cursing myself for doing so).