I, Daniel Blake

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The opening film for the 2016 Cambridge Film Festival sets the highest watermark for what looks to be an exciting eight days. Ken Loach, a behemoth of British cinema, has created a film that has all the correct ingredients in all the right quantities.
I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016) is about Daniel (Dave Johns), a mature carpenter, from Newcastle, who wants to return to work after suffering a serious heart attack. His doctors have said no, yet the state says he’s fit to work. Whilst spending agonising hours in the job centre, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum from London with two children. They form a father/daughter relationship, and together, they try their best to live, keep their dignity, and deal with whatever the state throws at them.

Paul Laverty’s brilliant script has a wide variety of jokes, big belly laughs, acidic one-liners, silly chuckles and desert dry sarcasm. But it’s not all comedy, the characters are fully formed and the two leads gel perfectly. They make decisions that never give the audience cause to question why. The script simply places complications before them, and allows the characters to respond realistically. While each characters’ story arc flows upwards to the most satisfying of climaxes, Laverty doesn’t allow his protagonists to hog the screen, each secondary character is formed appropriately. For example, a job centre worker, Sheila (Sharon Percy), is the ultimate “Computer says no” employee. The frustration this character produces immediately puts her in the Devil’s camp and she becomes as evil as Darth Vader. Yet, the writing quality doesn’t allow for Shelia to be one-sided; as the film progresses, Shelia keeps her steely resolve, digging her heels further into the cheap carpet, but we start to understand that she doesn’t want to be this person. It’s the rules, procedures, and regulations that have worn her down.

Daniel is the part Dave Johns was born to play. Physically he’s superb, his face a blend of fatherly happiness and disbelief, his voice is soft, yet loaded with humour. A lesser actor could easily have overcooked the role by throwing his hands in the air, smashing things, threatening people, yet Johns keeps it all on an even level, exactly how someone would do in ‘real life’. Similarly, Hayley Squires emerges as the shining star of this film, bringing us not the simple EastEnders clone that could have been, but instead, like Johns, a real person. There’s a scene where Daniel, Katie and her children walk to a food bank. Nothing is said, but the expression Squires wears on her face sums up the entire film… and the lives of so many people in the same position. This subtle piece of acting will represent the film better than any analytical study ever could.

I, DANIEL BLAKE is a smart film that delivers a powerful message through humour, while still highlighting the absurdity of some of the workings of the modern world. Another exceptional story from a master director.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahWgxw9E_h4


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