Legendary British director Ken Loach (Kes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) has long been regarded as the king of kitchen sink realism, driving a stake straight into the heart of social and working class issues in a way seldom seen in mainstream cinema. His latest effort, I, Daniel Blake is no exception, perhaps the most affecting, important and timely portrait of a broken welfare syste. It's essential and responsible film-making, arriving in New Zealand at a time where our mouldy rentals are making children sick and families live in cars.
The film opens with Daniel Blake, a middle-aged widower living in Newcastle, as he learns that his recent heart attack will prevent him returning to his life-long work as a labourer. So begins Blake's descent into the hamster wheel of the broken welfare system.
He's unable to get a sickness benefit because the powers that be deem him healthy enough to work, while his own doctor won't let him work because his heart can't take it.
Meeting a struggling single mother Katie along the way, I, Daniel Blake highlights the administrative structures in place to keep society's most disenfranchised trapped in an endless, powerless loop of bureaucracy.
Screenwriter Paul Laverty knitted the achingly naturalistic script together from hours of research and interviews with real people suffering under the very same system, groundwork that becomes very clear in the humanity that oozes through every line.
There are moments of utter heartbreak, as well as the odd one-liner that pops up about as satisfyingly and rarely as they do in real life. "The computer's frozen," a helpful youth at the library tells Blake. "Well can you defrost it?" he quips back, grinning. The conversations are presented as vignettes, the black screens between giving us a moment's rest from the increasingly frustrating spiral downwards.
Ex stand-up comic Dave Jones is a bold choice for the lead role, but shines as the gruff-yet-gentle Blake. His thick Geordie accent provides much-needed comedy in the face of crushing bleakness, paired with an infectious smile that fades as the story plays out. It starts as a borderline comedy of errors as the audience learns just how much admin is involved in the slightest of interactions with the welfare system. Be it his poor computer skills or missing an appointment by two minutes, the roll of red tape runs as far as the eye can see. When he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), you realise just how easily the cycle of poverty continues on to the next generation.
With the pair coming together to support each other, they form a heart-melting friendship despite their individual horrific circumstances.
Loach creates a world where, despite mouldy tiles, freezing flats and rubbish bags spilling into hallways, humanity shines through. While the four walls of the Jobcentre office are stark and cold, the generosity of people from complete strangers to security guards suggest that there is hope elsewhere for those in need.
If you are lucky enough to not know daily poverty, then this film is essential and eye-opening.
Told bluntly but with the utmost in dignity and empathy. this is a film that has the power to change minds and shift preconceived perceptions. Welcome to New Zealand, Daniel Blake, you couldn't have come at a better time.