Cannes 2016: Ken Loach Blasts Britain’s Welfare System in ‘I, Daniel Blake’

Ken Loach's latest is a well-meaning but disappointing attempt to explore the impact of Conservative benefit cuts in the UK.

The queues, the schmoozing, the parties, the frocks, and — oh yes — the films. May, in the movie world at least, pretty much means only one thing: Festival de Cannes, the equal parts exhausting and exhilarating 12 days during which the lovely Côte d’Azur town transforms itself into the Mecca for movies, as assorted international filmmakers, actors, producers and press arrive to participate in the world’s most prestigious film festival.

Memorably described by Roger Ebert in his Two Weeks in the Midday Sun (1987) as a “glorious ceremony of avarice, lust, ego, and occasional inspiration and genius”, Cannes was more recently summed up in all its magnificence and absurdity by Michał Oleszczyk in his coverage for Ebert’s site.

Now in its 69th year, the Festival certainly remains as stubbornly hierarchical as ever, both in its approach to film selection (with the Holy Grail of the main Competition supplemented by “Un Certain Regard”, and the less esteemed, but often more interesting, “Director’s Fortnight” and “Critics’ Week” sidebars) and in the notorious colored badge system which ranks reporters in terms of prestige of publication, and divides them into queues accordingly.

Meanwhile, issues around diversity (including the paucity of work by female and non-white filmmakers in the main Competition) have been raised by many, and dismissed as “the consequence not the cause” by Artistic Director Thierry Frémaux. Looking over the line-up in toto, though, it’s hard not to conclude that Cannes does remain hearteningly inclusive and international in its scope, presenting a wide range of work by global filmmakers, the best of which can sometimes get lost due to the emphasis on stars and spectacle that inevitably grabs the column inches of the mainstream media.

That being said, no one would deny that Cannes certainly has its “pets”: filmmakers whose work is pretty much guaranteed a place in the Festival regardless of its quality. This year, the predictable returnees include Xavier Dolan, Olivier Assayas, Asghar Farhadi and the Dardenne brothers. As such, the announcement that the “Opening Film” for 2016 would be Woody Allen’s Café Society didn’t come as too much of a surprise. Notoriously prolific, Allen was here just last year, with the moderately engaging, though mediocre and over-familiar, Irrational Man.

I arrived too late to catch Café Society, and so started Cannes 2016 with more serious fare instead. Ken Loach is undoubtedly another of the aforementioned Festival favorites, and I, Daniel Blake is, amazingly, the director’s 12th film to screen in Competition here. Coincidentally, it’s also Loach’s 12th collaboration with Paul Laverty who has penned Loach’s movies since 1996’s Carla’s Song.

Laverty and Loach have been fairly frank in outlining what inspired their new project: namely, their shared rage at the current Conservative government’s changes to the benefit system; changes which have seen some of Britain’s poorest undergo harsh welfare cuts and subsequent hardship. Loach has even contended that the situation is worse for some families, now than it was when he made his seminal homelessness drama Cathy Come Home (1966) 50 years ago.

In I, Daniel Blake, Dave Johns plays the title character, a 59-year-old Newcastle joiner who finds himself in need of welfare after an accident and a heart condition diagnosis. However, he is deemed “fit to work” by the authorities. As Dan attempts to negotiate the baffling bureaucracy of the system, he crosses paths with Katie (Hayley Squires), a Londoner who’s been moved North with her two children due to the capital’s housing crisis. Gradually, these two struggling souls from a bond.

I, Daniel Blake begins beautifully, with some intelligently developed scenes that show Loach’s special gift for naturalism and his ability to put underseen aspects of British life on screen in relatable ways. (The use of Geordie dialect resulted in the decision to screen the movie not only with French but also English subtitles last night.) Although neither character is as fully developed as one might like, Dan and Katie’s relationship is touchingly presented, and the movie seems sensitive in its presentation of the dilemma of a man such as Dan, who’s skilled in his trade yet rightfully frustrated by the inhuman responses and technology-emphasis he encounters in the system. Johns and Squires are great together, the relationship never once threatening to become anything as conventional as a mere romance, and a scene set in a food bank is particularly strong and moving.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t sustain itself. The blame, I’m afraid, rests with Laverty’s screenplay, which starts cooking up bogus developments, and gets way too sentimental and preachy by the end. The decision Katie makes to earn some money (and the way in which the offer comes about) fails to convince, and the film finally becomes as shameless as any Hollywood product in using the child actors playing her kids (Briana Shann and Dylan Phillip McKiernan) to jerk tears from the audience.

By the time we get to Dan’s desperate gesture — an act which gives the film its title and allows for a direct tirade at the government, just in case we’d missed the point — the movie had collapsed for me, and I found its rushed coda a sentimental embarrassment.

The policies of David Cameron’s Conservatives have generated so much distress and ill-will in the UK of late that I have a strong feeling that many people will find what they want to find in I, Daniel Blake and will accept the film as the tough and scathing critique of the government that they desire it to be. However, Loach’s film is soft-centered and unconvincing where it counts, and after its strong start, its recourse to calculated contrivance and heavy-handedness is frustrating.

I, Daniel Blake undoubtedly has its heart in the right place; it’s a shame that Loach and Laverty’s good intentions haven’t resulted, in the end, in better cinema.

RATING 6 / 10