Cannes 2016: I, Daniel Blake

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year and I will be posting my reviews on here daily. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming, and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

I, Daniel Blake is a plain, unadorned film from Ken Loach, which, while treading familiar territory, is an emotive, moving and effective rebuttal of austerity and the harsh benefits system in Britain. It powerfully and – from personal experience – accurately portrays the equally mundane and frighteningly Kafkaesque administrative ordeal of attempting to do something ostensibly simple: to undertake one’s right as a citizen to claim financial support when unable to support oneself.

Dave Johns, a Geordie comic by trade, plays Daniel Blake, a former carpenter recovering from a heart attack and out of work under doctor’s orders. Caught in a bind between being declared unfit for work by his GP but not disabled enough to claim benefits according to the government’s outsourced “healthcare professional”, Daniel’s income and quality of life are squeezed beyond reasonable limits. Meanwhile, Daniel befriends a London-born single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is transplanted from London to council housing in Newcastle. It is the only available residence. Katie has barely enough to keep the lights on and feed her two young children. In turn, both Daniel and Katie are forced to confront the confusing, labyrinthine and – for Loach – deliberately difficult state support system that makes sure the poor suffer what they must.

Johns gives a natural and unshowy performance that is both restrained and understated. He is able to evoke in single scenes the multiple feelings of bemusement, anger and resignation when faced with seemingly insurmountable government processes. There are moments of humour: the on-hold telephone music and one mention of a Stoke City midfielder particularly, though they appeared somewhat niche for the Cannes audience. Such references will date this film rather quickly, but in that sense Loach’s picture is highly topical, and its urgency is a large part of the appeal. Shoplifting, food banks and prostitution are all shown to be products of the poisonous discourse that divides the deserving and undeserving poor; and in this way, I, Daniel Blake is at its most effective. But there is little getting away from the fact the politics of the film are crude and reductive, and many who are not seduced by Loach’s romanticised idealising of the working class will dispute its intellectual credentials.

I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or.


Published by

Joseph Owen

PhD, Carl Schmitt, Modernism and Sovereignty at University of Southampton

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