'I, Daniel Blake' is an important film - but not quite a great one

The storytelling in Ken Loach's latest struggles to keep pace with its authentic exploration of modern poverty

'I, Daniel Blake' is an important film - but not quite a great one

Director Ken Loach poses for photographers upon his arrival at the premiere of the film 'I, Daniel Blake'. Image: Joel Ryan AP/Press Association Images

Five months after it was awarded the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival - the Palme d'Or - Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake was released in British and Irish cinema last week.

The film follows the eponymous Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old English joiner and widower who finds himself temporarily forced to stop working after suffering a heart attack. He finds himself battling against the British welfare system when his claim for sickness benefit is rejected. He is plunged him into a world of endless forms, confounding technology and official jargon. As he fights for his entitlements, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires) - a young mother of two who is in desperate need for welfare.

I, Daniel Blake has, for the most part, been warmly received by critics. It has been described as something of a modern updating of Loach’s classic and influential 1966 Cathy Come Home, a landmark in social realist filmmaking in Britain. It has proven a commercial hit too, earning £445,000 (€500,000) at the British box office - a record for a Loach film.

Beyond that, it has provoked plenty of debate, some critics suggesting it should be mandatory viewing for Conservative politicians in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn has taken part in efforts to promote the film. Others have taken to media - social and traditional - to share stories similar to Daniel’s. Speaking to Newstalk’s Picture Show, Loach himself said he was provoked to make the film as a result of “the consciously cruel way the most vulnerable people are treated”.

I, Daniel Blake's socialist, 'protest film' bona fides are clear and absolutely admirable (assuming you fall on that side of the political fence). It does raise a question though: does that make a great film?

It is, in many ways, a truly vital film. It’s incredibly valuable to see the dehumanising impact of ‘the system’ explored on the big screen. While this is very obviously UK-centric, Irish viewers who have engaged with state bodies - particularly Social Welfare, but also the likes of Revenue - will find similarities here in terms of the manner and systems employed. It is a thoroughly researched film, even though some of the language used sounds like it is straight out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. The film is rich with minor details - one witty but familiar scene captures the frustration of being stuck on hold.

Most importantly, this is a very human film, concerned primarily with the emotional and psychological impacts of welfare and poverty. It features the sort of people we rarely see in screen. Daniel, for example, is computer illiterate - his inability to use a mouse is a source of some humour in the film, but also frightening as his lack of computer skills begins to have major consequences in his efforts to secure a source of income. 

One of the film’s most memorable sequences takes place in a food bank. It proves an illuminating insight into a world many will never have to experience, and also a devastatingly raw look at the experiences of those who are forced to do so. While the film does have a tendency to vilify some of the welfare staff to an almost cartoonish degree, through one character it also takes the time to sympathise and explore their experiences. Very strong performances from the two leads in particular ensure all this hits the intended mark.

In these and many other moments, I, Daniel Blake is a film that earns that rarest of cinematic compliments: it is actually important.

Where those on welfare are often treated as statistics or worse - whether that is by governments, media or even their fellow citizens (sadly, social media has only amplified criticisms of those below the poverty line) - Loach’s film provides an essential riposte.

That, for many, will be more than enough, and indeed there are few films that radiate with the sort of social urgency on display in I, Daniel Blake. But as the film enters its third act, it does struggle to fully retain the goodwill it had already generated.

For all the detail and nuances on display throughout the film, the script by Paul Laverty is not exactly one graced with dramatic subtlety. The film’s final half hour or so is an avalanche of misery. Its avoidance of easy resolutions is to be admired in theory, but in execution it’s clunky and frankly rather over-the-top. Several major plot developments lack the credibility seen earlier, and are not organic in the way the rest of the storytelling is. A handful of overly loaded speeches clunkily betray that clichéd but ever-appropriate cinematic mantra: “show don’t tell”.

No audience member will be left with any doubt what the film is about by the time the credits roll. Many, as a result, will likely find the finale emotionally harrowing or refreshingly (& appropriately) bleak. But for this viewer anyway it uses a sledgehammer to redeliver a message that had already been delivered with much more nuance and care earlier. A characteristically low-key directorial style unfortunately does little to overcome these problems.

For most people, the core themes and messages will almost certainly prove potent and resonant - especially for the many who have gone through the system themselves. But at its worst the film can come across as a polemic - excessive and preaching to the choir. Such traits would undoubtedly be more heavily criticised in a film of a less sympathetic political persuasion.

Sharing her three-star review of I, Daniel Blake on Twitter, the Sunday Times’ Camilla Long described the film as a “a povvo safari for middle class people”. In a particularly cynical take on the film, the Daily Mail’s Toby Young described it as a “misty-eyed, laughably inaccurate portrait of benefits Britain”.

Ken Loach’s Twitter account called out Long’s review, saying it was “outrageous and, considering meticulous research, just wrong”. The account also retweeted a viral clip making fun of Young and Long.

While the two writers are almost certainly attempting to provoke with their respective comments and therefore worthy of criticism, it is worth highlighting that ‘meticulous research’ alone does not necessarily equate to a great film either (especially when it’s not a documentary).

I, Daniel Blake is almost without question an urgent, angry, compassionate and vital piece of work about important subject matter rarely explored on screen. Yet, with just a little bit more care in how the story was presented, it could have been something even greater.