I, Daniel Blake Cannes review: a deeply moving, darkly funny drama

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty continue their longtime collaboration with a skull-shaking study of the Kafkaesque lunacy of Britain’s benefit system

I, Daniel Blake
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Director: Ken Loach
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, collaborators for 20 years, are on very familiar ground in this deeply moving, darkly funny drama set among those who slip through gaping cracks in Britain’s benefit system.

Indeed, the film could hardly look more like the work of the man who directed Cathy Come Home in 1966.

Both that early work and I, Daniel Blake concern themselves with inadequacies in the state's caring mechanisms. Here, the robust, soft-featured Dave Johns, best known as stand-up comic, plays a Tyneside carpenter who, following a heart attack, is told to lay off work for a while.

Following an unhappy encounter with a “health professional”, he is denied disability payments. He then encounters absurd logistical conundrums when applying for “jobseeker’s allowance”. In order to qualify, he must seek work that, if offered, he will be unable to accept.


Early on in the process, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young London woman dispatched to Newcastle with her two children by a welfare service that claims no affordable housing exists in the capital.

In the early stages, Loach and Laverty extract much black humour from the sheer lunacy of the regulations. Evasive euphemisms abound. Almost no official can find the language to communicate with an applicant who, like Daniel, has never turned on a computer.

In a paradox worthy of Kafka, solutions to IT illiteracy seem to be found almost exclusively online. Meanwhile, Katie, despite Daniel’s help, drifts deeper into debt and takes to shoplifting.

I, Daniel Blake looks to have been rigorously researched. The bureaucratic circumlocutions call themselves by names that sound all too real. Katie's eventual trip to a food bank plays as if transcribed from first-hand reports. Sometimes this pushes the film into the territory of fictionalised case study. Now and then, Loach wields a sledgehammer when a more delicate tool would have sufficed.

These are mere quibbles. When this film-making partnership choose to exercise its anger, the results are invariably skull-shaking. In a performance that could well be recognised by the Cannes jury, Johns gives us a man who, a striver all his life, finally meets a match for his determination in a system that seems cynically rigged to frustrate honest aspirations. Other Loach films have shown this degree of fury. None have been quite so sad.

Robbie Ryan, the great Irish cinematographer who has two films in competition, shoots with discretion and taste. The supporting players have the ease of delivery we expect from Loach productions.

We have one question concerning the presentation here at Cannes. Was it really necessary to impose English subtitles on every line? Only Geordies will know if I should take offense on their behalf.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist