Among filmmakers, British director Ken Loach remains unique in his steadfast commitment to socially relevant film-making. For half a century, Loach, who's now 80, has directed films about the kinds of marginalized people who seldom find their way to the screen.
In I, Daniel Blake, Loach continues to focus on the tribulations of people struggling with forces beyond their control -- in this case, issues involving failing health and diminished opportunities to earn a living.
Daniel Blake, the movie's main character, works as a carpenter until a heart attack keeps him from seeking employment. Much of the movie involves Daniel's efforts to obtain support from the state.
Loach chronicles Daniel's frustrating dealings with social services personnel and with the Internet, a common enough bit of technology about which he knows little. Misguided social workers keep telling him to go on-line to fill out forms.
At one point, a clueless government employee orders Daniel to produce a resume, a meaningless task for someone who knows how to demonstrate his skills only by doing what he's done for all of his adult life; i.e., building things.
Loach makes Daniel (Dave Johns) a sympathetic figure, a decent man who's sensitive to the plight of others. Daniel befriends a young woman (Hayley Squires) he meets at a welfare office. Daniel uses his meager resources to help buy food for her kids. He also repairs her rundown apartment. He's helping, but he's also affirming something that he badly needs: to feel useful.
Guided by his commitment to realism, Loach resists adding the kind of uplift that might be found in a less sobering film, which is not to say that Loach wallows in thick neorealist mud. Daniel can feel desperate, but the film does not.
Besides being a clear-eyed statement about the failures of institutions designed to help people such as Daniel, we also find Loach's love of ordinary people and his abiding empathy for their daily struggles. That shouldn't be an extraordinary accomplishment, but sadly not many filmmakers are as skilled as Loach in putting such struggles at the center of their movies.