Ken Loach back to his best with 'I Daniel Blake'

Ken Loach back to his best with 'I Daniel Blake'

They say film is a young man’s game, whoever “they” are when they are at home.

This coming week legendary horror director John Carpenter will be visiting Vicar St in Dublin to perform some music from the soundtracks of his films (which he wrote himself) such as The Thing, Halloween, Escape from New York etc. and some more music from his recent solo albums.

The set will be performed with a full band featuring both his son and grandson, along with Carpenter himself on his favoured synthesiser. The film director is now 68 years of age and in an interview with him in the Irish Times last week he himself repeated the above line, film is it seems “no country for old men.”

Of course things are never as clear cut as that in the real world and in truth many filmmakers produce some of their best work well into their twilight years. In fact, the recently passed Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira was directing films past the ripe old age of 100 before he passed away at the even riper age of 104.

Another filmmaker who shows no sign of slowing down as he ages is the always wonderful Ken Loach.

Now 80 years young he has produced a film, I, Daniel Blake which is as great as anything he has created over his lengthy career.

Along with his regular collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, this time Loach tackles head on the cruelty, inhumanity and madness of the benefits system in present day Britain under those most hateful of words, austerity and neo liberalism. No longer a safety net for the greater good, it seems that the powers that be have turned the system into just another way to punish, disenfranchise and dehumanise everyone who comes into contact with it or needs help.

It’s as if the system now sets itself up in order to deter anyone but the most desperately in need from engaging with it by making it almost impossible to get any help in the first place.

Then when in the system the cogs are slowly turned until they break you down completely. Its punishment dressed up as help.

The new film focuses on the titular, Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old joiner living in the depressed North-East of England. He has worked all his adult life but recently had a major heart attack.

When we meet him, his recovery is incomplete and his cardiologist is concerned that Daniel's heart might begin to beat abnormally, putting him at risk of developing a life-threatening arrhythmia.

Daniel has fair day-to-day function - he shops, does DIY and generally looks after himself - and does score some points at his eligibility assessment for the sickness benefit; unfortunately, his points total is below the threshold needed to qualify for this benefit and so he is deemed fit for work.

Daniel has assumed that the unspecified 'healthcare professional' from the global outsourcing company that carried out his Work Capability Assessment (which is portrayed as a ludicrous box-ticking exercise) has contacted his doctors for information on his condition, but she has not.

Daniel might as well be in the novel Catch-22: if he works - against the advice of his medical specialists - he risks sudden death from his heart condition; if he doesn't work, he will receive no social security benefits and so be left destitute.

His only hope is a favourable outcome from his legal appeal to an independent tribunal.

While Daniel struggles inside a web of red tape, he meets single mother Katie and her two children, Dylan and Daisy, who, in order to escape a homeless persons' hostel in London, have been forced to take up residence 300 miles away in Newcastle. Katie has been 'sanctioned' - her benefits have been stopped because she briefly got lost on the way to the Job Centre - and she cannot feed everyone in her family nor heat their apartment. Widower Daniel, single-parent Katie and her children together face poverty and humiliation created by a system that is designed to drive them into the black economy, or, at worst, to crush them completely.

The film brought Loach his second Palm D’or this year at the Cannes Film Festival and it could not be more deserved. It’s rare one experiences a cinema which engages with real people and real issues but here is a stellar example of what can be achieved through clear headed intelligence, compassion, empathy and artistry. A more important film you will not find this year. Some say that Ireland has not yet descended to the base cruelty of a Tory led benefits system but with a myriad of back to work schemes here effectively turning people into slaves who must work for their dole despite the fact there are no jobs anyway and the amount of companies in turn taking unfair advantage of said back to work (though they rarely lead to any real work, real in terms of pay) we could all do well to take note at the warning here.

People should be seen and treated as such not as statistics or faceless numbers. It’s time to take the humanity back.

4/5