Monday 24 October 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Blake’s Heaven

I, Daniel Blake
2016  UK/France/Belgium
Directed by Ken Loach
UK cinema release print.

Well this is a first for me. I’ve never seen a Ken Loach movie before. Yeah, I know... how did I get to be this old and not have seen a Ken Loach movie? Well the truth is, I’ve always kinda avoided him. I’ve never had any doubts that he’s a skilled director (and this movie certainly gives strong evidence of that) but he’s just never really made the kinds of films I’ve wanted to see. If I see a film giving a social commentary then I’d much rather see it wrapped up as science fiction or horror where the issue can be explored at a level of speculation unavailable to films not in those genres. But it’s not even that because, I’m okay with some other directors who do this kind of thing, to an extent. So, really, I don’t know what my excuse is but, there you have it... he’s not a director I’m familiar with.

However, I saw the trailer to I, Daniel Blake and I recognised people I know.

That is to say, I recognised the types of people he’s talking about here. I used to know somebody living in extreme poverty facing exactly the same kinds of  bureaucratic problems revolving around receiving benefits while desperately unfit for work, in a similar dilemma the title character in this film faces. I am friends with an old man who has been travelling the same bus route as me for years who has no computer, no television, no mobile phone and no way of knowing how to use those things anyway. He’s about as far away from being a digital native as you can get. Another man who sometimes rides the bus with me has been told by his pensions office that he’s got to do a load of stuff online to continue to receive his much needed pension. He wouldn’t know what a modern computer even looks like, let alone know how to turn it on if he could get access. Some of these people barely have enough money to manage to eat for a week let alone be able to afford any real access to a digital world they won’t understand... so how do they survive in this terrible new world of governments running through computers?

So, yeah, I saw the trailer to this movie and it all looked very relevant to me and I thought, yeah, I probably should pop my Ken Loach cherry on this one. And I’m kinda glad I did.

I, Daniel Blake stars Dave Johns in the title role. A sixty-something year old who has lost his wife and who has recently had a heart attack on the construction site where he works as a carpenter. His doctor has told him he can’t yet go back to work but... the government says he’s fit for work and so he has to appeal and sign on and try to negotiate the whole Jobseekers Allowance charade. So in a very short time his life goes all Kafkaesque as he tries to negotiate a red tape world of online forms and stupid people who will only lift a finger to help once the paperwork is correctly filled in... and probably not even then.

In his adventures in Government stupidity, he befriends a relocated single mother called Katie, played by Hayley Squires, and her two young children. He helps out by lending his construction skills to fix things for her, watch the kids when she's out and generally being a ray of hope in her life while, all the time, the thick miasma of Government stupidity seeks to drag him down too. The movie explores their relationship and the way they attempt to fight or work around the system... and the lows and lows it takes them to.

Now Loach is not quite the ‘man rubbing a raw wound’ that I thought he would be. He’s not out to say that everyone in Government is bad or that all of the ‘little people’ are good either. It seems to me that he’s happy to see the good and bad in some people without them deferring to the sides of the two worlds they live in and this is quite a refreshing approach, actually.

There are some nice things about the style of the film such as using a moving camera for a lot of it. Although it’s almost certainly hand held, to catch a voyeuristic, intimate feeling of travelling the same road as his characters, it’s not jerking around all over the place like some movies and it’s actually fairly unobtrusive, not acting as a barrier to immersion into the events depicted, like it might in other hands. He always happy not to judge things too much, allowing the audience to make up their own minds about the terrible injustice carried out on a daily basis... so that’s kinda cool and it’s a much less preachy movie than I thought it would be too.

The acting is superb. I’m guessing a lot of this was improvised and polished in rehearsals and, I’ve also heard that the film was shot in sequence with the director drip feeding his players a scene at a time... presumably so there can be no foreshadowing in the acting process. Which is a good idea and I can't see how that approach to movie making could ever fly on, for instance, a Hollywood production, where shooting all the scenes of any given location is a good way to save money. Dave Johns and Hailey Squires are absolutely electric in this movie. Their performances are moving with some amazing scenes like the one where Daniel is telling Katie and her kids about his deceased wife or the amazing sequence where he accompanies Katie to a food bank and... an incident occurs. I’m actually tearing up again as I write this sentence and think about it again, to be honest.

The music by George Fenton is practically non existent but... it is there and I noted it’s used in a very powerful way... once I’d actually noticed it, that is. The musical moments are mostly a sustained cluster of notes held, almost in a micropolyphony kind of way like Györgi Ligeti used to do, and they’re mixed so low in the soundtrack that at first I thought they were coming from the screen next door or that possibly there was something going on outside the cinema. They get slightly louder every time they’re sounded and it seems to me that they were few and far between appearance, only welling up behind a scene (and I do mean behind... way back) every time Daniel has to process something which is a little closer to being the straw which breaks the camel’s back. It’s a really subtle way to use movie music and that tells me that Loach is obviously a fairly sophisticated film maker too... not many people would be that brave with the scoring these days, methinks.

The only real thing which surprised me in a slightly negative way is that the film is fairly clichéd and predictable in places. It follows certain arcs with the characters which are perhaps very obvious choices for the writer to make. That being said, the people out there on the streets are also suffering these very obvious choices in real life so... perhaps that was actually the point here. I can’t fault anyone for this and it’s so well crafted that it doesn’t really matter, to be honest.

The ending is kinda good too. Many directors would milk this ending and make a much bigger thing of it. In this movie, you have an incident which happens and then one quick prologue scene and then, without fanfare, the movie is over, the credits are already rolling and, if you’re anything like me, your face is probably all wet. In fact, I saw this at the Picturehouse Central in the Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus. When I got the trains back home I didn’t stop tearing up until I’d walked to the Piccadilly line, got the train to Finsbury Park and was still crying until I got the Victoria Line to Seven Sisters to make the overground train. So yeah, it was definitely a powerful experience but it did it by stealth. I didn’t feel its power until afterwards, when key scenes came back to haunt me.

So there you go. That’s me on I, Daniel Blake and my introduction to the cinema of Ken Loach. A pretty good movie and people who are living in this country probably all should go take a look at it. Cinema and art can sometimes be best when they are reflecting back the audience's own predicaments... and this film certainly shows up some of the terrible problems of this country... and probably many countries. Definitely worth the price of admission... assuming you can afford the ticket price. Modern cinema ticket prices are not cheap.

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