Still an­gry at the un­der­dog’s plight

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

B ri­tish di­rec­tor Ken Loach turned 80 this year, a few weeks after his lat­est film, I, Daniel Blake, was awarded one of cinema’s most pres­ti­gious an­nual prizes, the Palme d’Or of the Cannes film fes­ti­val; the Cannes jury, headed by our own Ge­orge Miller, sin­gled out Loach’s film over a strong in­ter­na­tional line-up of di­verse films, giv­ing Loach the award for the sec­ond time. (He also won for The Wind that Shakes the Bar­ley in 2006.) A few weeks ago the film opened in Bri­tain and, to the sur­prise of many, be­came com­mer­cially the most suc­cess­ful of the 26 fea­tures Loach has made dur­ing a ca­reer span­ning more than 50 years.

Loach, who was born and raised in the Mid­lands, was one of the Bri­tish di­rec­tors who emerged in the 1960s after cut­ting their teeth on BBC tele­vi­sion drama (Ken Rus­sell and John Boor­man were among the oth­ers). Loach’s 1966 drama Cathy Come Home was a rev­e­la­tion in its day as it un­flinch­ingly de­picted the plight of a young wife and mother who be­comes home­less after her hus­band is in­volved in a work-re­lated ac­ci­dent. The “play”, ac­tu­ally shot on film, was clearly the work of some­one an­gered at in­jus­tice, and it’s fair to say Loach has lost none of his anger in the in­ter­ven­ing half-cen­tury. All of the di­rec­tor’s films share his pas­sion­ate empathy for life’s bat­tlers, for the “or­di­nary” men and women who are just try­ing to sur­vive in a world that makes sur­vival dif­fi­cult.

I, Daniel Blake is firmly in that tra­di­tion. The epony­mous Dan Blake (Dave Johns) lives in New­cas­tle upon Tyne and has worked all his life as a car­pen­ter and joiner, pay­ing his taxes and en­joy­ing a happy mar­ried life un­til the re­cent death of his wife, whom he still qui­etly mourns. When the film be­gins, Dan has suf­fered a heart at­tack se­vere enough for his GP to ad­vise him to stop work­ing, at least for the time be­ing. And so, like thou­sands of oth­ers in his predica­ment, he’s forced to seek wel­fare. And, like so many oth­ers, he finds him­self baf­fled and frus­trated by the red tape and doc­u­men­ta­tion re­quired, by the end­less record­ings of Vi­valdi as he waits for hours on the phone for some­one to help him, or on Ev­ery­one, War by the re­quire­ments to com­plete forms on­line, us­ing tech­nol­ogy with which he’s com­pletely un­fa­mil­iar. For hour after hour he en­dures hu­mil­i­a­tion and con­de­scen­sion at the hands of some (not all) of the staff at the Job­seeker’s Al­lowance of­fice.

Dan finds him­self in a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion. His doc­tor says he can’t work; the bu­reau­cracy says he must, or at least must prove he’s seek­ing work, if he’s to re­ceive wel­fare pay­ments. Mean­while, be­cause he’s a kind, de­cent, friendly man, he finds him­self in­volved with Katie (Hay­ley Squires), a sin­gle mum with two chil­dren, who re­cently has been moved from Lon­don, where her mother and sup­port group live, to this un­fa­mil­iar city in the north of Eng­land be­cause no state hous­ing was avail­able in or near the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. As a stranger in town, Katie has taken the wrong bus to the wel­fare of­fice and con­se­quently is late for her first ap­point­ment, which means she’s de­nied ac­cess to any pay­ment un­til the next ap­point­ment, no mat­ter that she has kids to feed and no money to heat the ice-cold house she’s liv­ing in.

The film’s cred­its note that anony­mous con­tri­bu­tions to Paul Laverty’s screen­play were made by wel­fare agency em­ploy­ees, which no doubt is why so much of the film feels au­then­tic. Loach is work­ing here in the great tra­di­tion of screen re­al­ism; post­war Ital­ian films such as Bi­cy­cle Thieves and Um­berto D are the di­rect fore­bears of this de­pic­tion of life in con­tem­po­rary Bri­tain. Un­like Vit­to­rio De Sica, who made those two master­pieces, Loach has been con­sis­tent through­out his ca­reer in his celebration of the un­der­dog and his crit­i­cism of the pow­er­ful. It could be ar­gued that his ap­proach is ma­nip­u­la­tive; Dan is al­most too good to be true, a sur­ro­gate fa­ther to Katie and her kids (and handy around the house) and a good neigh­bour to his black mate, de­spite the fact he seems to be in­volved in some dodgy deal­ings in­volv­ing Chi­nese rip-offs of brand-name train­ers. But for Loach, Dan rep­re­sents the noble spirit of the work­ing class, a good cit­i­zen all his life who now, in his hour of need, is be­ing screwed by the sys­tem. Loach is pal­pa­bly an­gry about what’s hap­pen­ing to the Dans and Katies of this world, and his anger spills out into ev­ery frame of the film.

One of the key scenes takes place where a char­ity, pre­sum­ably a re­li­gious one, is hand­ing out free gro­ceries and other es­sen­tials to peo­ple such as Katie who have noth­ing. The vol­un­teers here are kind and thought­ful, but even they aren’t pre­pared for the shock­ing mo­ment when the starv­ing young mother, who un­til now has fed her kids and not her­self, rips open a can of cold baked beans and starts wolf­ing them down, swal­low­ing her pride be­cause her need is so great. That, says Loach, is the re­al­ity of poverty in Bri­tain to­day.

You don’t go to a Loach film to see a cin­e­matic spec­ta­cle. His films are shot in a func­tional and ef­fi­cient style that per­fectly fits the sub­ject mat­ter. But nei­ther are you nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing un­re­lent­ingly grim. A bleak sense of hu­mour per­me­ates these in­hab­i­tants of strug­gle street, but though you can smile at the inane ques­tions fired at wel­fare ap­pli­cants by hide­bound bu­reau­crats the un­der­ly­ing truth is both painful and uni­ver­sal. The di­rec­tor uses pro­fes­sional ac­tors (Johns is known in Bri­tain as a co­me­dian) along­side non­pro­fes­sional ac­tors who are es­sen­tially play­ing them­selves, and it works bril­liantly.

Peo­ple such as Dan and Katie are usu­ally just sta­tis­tics: by al­low­ing us to get to know the re­al­ity, hu­man­ity and heart­break be­hind these sta­tis­tics, Loach has made one of his finest films. The first two fea­tures made by John Michael McDon­agh, The Guard and Cal­vary, were set in Ire­land and suc­ceeded in com­bin­ing sus­pense and hu­mour to great ef­fect. His third fea­ture, War on Ev­ery­one, is set in New Mex­ico, with an un­ex­pected side trip to Ice­land, and is a Tarantino-es­que cop thriller of lit­tle dis­tinc­tion.

Michael Pena and Alexan­der Skars­gard play mav­er­ick cops, the for­mer a chubby fam­ily man, the lat­ter a wom­an­is­ing hunk. De­spite their dif­fer­ences they share a loose at­ti­tude to­wards their roles as law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, break­ing traf­fic rules and do­ing drugs while bick­er­ing and ref­er­enc­ing pop­u­lar cul­ture in ways that are sup­posed to be funny.

With a sound­track of Glen Camp­bell songs and a rather retro look, the film bar­rels along from one vi­o­lent en­counter to an­other with­out invit­ing much au­di­ence in­volve­ment.

Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake; Alexan­der Skars­gard and Michael Pena in

be­low

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