Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I Daniel Blake, film review: ‘Gritty slice of social realism’

Ken Loach. Picture: Nigel Sutton.

Ken Loach. Picture: Nigel Sutton. - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Dartmouth Park director Ken Loach celebrates his 80th birthday this June. After his latest feature, I, Daniel Blake won the Palme D’Or and a documentary out about his life and work, Meredith Taylor reports on this gritty slice of social realism.

A scene from I Daniel Blake

A scene from I Daniel Blake - Credit: Archant

It seems appropriate that a British auteur with his own particular brand of social realism should return at 80, to the 69th edition of a Film Festival priding itself upon being about the art of film rather than just the money.

The Cannes line-up was still gloriously auteur-driven; but you may never get to see these films at your local cinema – apart from the Palme d’Or winner, naturellement.

That’s why Woody Allen, a treasured regular at Cannes still brings Red Carpet glitz and the big crowds to watch the competition.

His festival opener, Cafe Society (out of competition) a romantic comedy and social satire of 1930s America, will definitely be coming to a cinema near you.

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Ken Loach is no newcomer to the competition and his latest film, a decade after he won the Palme d’Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley and two years after he brought Jimmy’s Hall to Cannes, is a story about a decent man in Newcastle.

Another auteur, this time one who crafts wood, suddenly finds himself in his 50s falling back on the Welfare State due to a heart attack, after years of self-employment as a joiner.

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His life of using his hands comes to a halt - “I can build you a house, but I can’t use a computer” - and he feels demoralised by the social services and a grim breed of people called ‘medical professionals’ and ‘decision-makers’.

Loach works with his regular co-writer Paul Laverty in this bleak but trenchant indictment of the British welfare system where Daniel Blake is played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns.

Forced to listen interminably to that stalwart of ‘on-hold phone lines - The Four Seasons - Blake’s dialogue is fraught with Geordie expressions.

Loach offers a didactic approach which is occasionally moving and sparked with fierce humour, although the support characters often feel typecast into nasty government types versus put upon underdogs.

When Daniel sees Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother of two being denied basic support for missing her appointment, an unlikely friendship develops and he offers to help with odds jobs around her council flat.

Although Katie’s story occasionally veers into the realms of worthy melodrama, Daniel emerges the hero, a truly likeable bloke mourning the death of his wife as he deals with the Kafkaesque absurdity of form-filling that most of us will appreciate. The finale is rather predicable as Blake takes a rebellious stance in desperation.

But this is a film that will resonate with those who have reached the end of their tether with bureaucracy.

At 80, Ken Loach remains one of the most humanist and socially-engaged British directors on the scene.

Rating: 3/5 stars

In celebration of his 80th Birthday this June, Dogwoof and the BFI support a new film by British documentarian Louise Osmund: VERSUS: The Life and Films of Ken Loach is released on June 3. On June 6 there will be a ‘pay as you can’ day nationwide in 43 cinemas across the UK and Ireland.

Meredith Taylor is the founder and editor of supporting and showcasing independent and arthouse cinema on general release

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