Criterion Review: I, DANIEL BLAKE

Ken Loach’s damnation of crippling bureaucracy and its burden on the common man comes to Criterion

Since the ‘60s, Ken Loach has made a name for himself, not just as an independent filmmaker, but as a voice for the downtrodden, with observations on class and political commentary providing the bedrock for the stories he tells. His latest, and thought to be final, film was the 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, a deeply affecting tale of one man’s plight while dealing with the welfare state in the UK. It’s a story that has relevance and poignancy outside the British isles, and a welcome addition the Criterion collection.


An urgent response to the political realities of con­­tem­porary Britain, this bracing drama from celebrated filmmaker Ken Loach takes a hard look at bureaucratic injustice and ineptitude through the eyes of an unassuming working-class hero. After a heart attack leaves him unable to hold a job, the widowed carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) begins a long, lonely journey through the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the local welfare state. Along the way, he strikes up a friendship with a single mother (Hayley Squires) and her two children, at the mercy of the same system after being evicted from their home. Imbued with gentle humor and quiet rage and conceived for maximum real-world impact, the Palme d’Or–winning I, Daniel Blake is a testament to Loach’s tireless commitment to a cinema of social engagement.

Benefits, welfare, government support; whatever term your country uses, it equates to the same thing — a state sponsored program intended to help those unable to help themselves, be it through disability, temporary injury, an inability to support dependents, and so on. While some think it an imperative of any enlightened society, some show reticence at seeing their taxes spent on such programs. Compounding issues are layers of bureaucracy within any system, aimed to stop people exploiting the system, but that actually end up hurting those who need it most.

Daniel Blake is one such individual. Even though he wants to, a medical situation precludes him from working, but the system also stops him from obtaining the benefits he needs to live. It’s one of those “person fallen between the cracks in society” tales that Loach does so well. A working class man, lacking polish but decent, is not gaming the system, but a victim of it. He’s an illustration of someone who genuinely needs a little give within the rigid bureaucracy, a little personal understanding. His problems are compounded, notably by the recent loss of his wife, but also by the world around him changing. It’s frustrating, and tragic, and this is tempered though him striking up a bond with Katie, a single mother of two children who move in next door. He gives her practical assistance and an old school practicality too, while they show him a kindness missing from his life. As ever with Loach, these small mercies of good human nature are insufficient to head off the darker direction the film takes.

I, Daniel Blake is a stripped down, gritty affair. Grey in palette and mood, it’s given warmth by the pathos and natural approach of its two leads, Dave Johns and Hayley Squires. The generational differences and conflict between the pair provide some smiles, but the similarities between the two are what really cement their friendship and understanding. Each is struggling to get by, each is burdened by the frustration of bureaucracy. Johns is excellent at bringing a working class charm and a weary inner turmoil to the role, while Squires offers a more emotional counterpoint. You want them both to get what they need; empathy for the pair is crafted in spades — even more so when Blake, being the decent man he is, takes up activism, fighting the system for all, not just himself. It only makes the film’s conclusion all the more affecting.

Loach has refined his approach to political commentary over the years, and while I, Daniel Blake is loaded with scathing insights, none of them are overly pointed. There isn’t a sense of urgency, which makes it’s climax harder to take, but it is weighed with importance. It’s a gritty damnation of a government and system of bureaucracy that is failing the people that genuinely need help, while showing that the human touch is crucial to our survival.

The Package

The transfer is sourced from a 2K digital transfer, and with it being a fairly recent film (2016), image quality is strong. Detail and depth are the most notable attributes in a film with a rather muted palette. Natural colors, especially skin-tones, are well represented. Special features include:

  • Audio commentary from 2016 featuring Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty: A frank and revealing commentary, one that outlines the inspiration for the story, the production itself, the actors, as well as some personal opinions on the British government and welfare state.
  • How to Make a Ken Loach Film, a 2016 documentary on the production of I, Daniel Blake: Running around 40 min, it serves as more of a “behind the scenes” doc for I, Daniel Blake than a general featurette.
  • Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach, a 2016 documentary directed by Louise Osmond: A fascinating watch. A ~90 min doc that reflects on the life of Loach, one where he has imbued his artistic intent with his efforts to be a thorn in the side of those in power. Great mix of footage and interviews, drawing from many people, cast and crew alike, from his back catalogue.
  • Deleted scenes: 9 short deleted scenes, each slightly building on ones left in the film. Understandable why they were removed.
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Girish Shambu: Contained within the nicely arranged liner notes booklet, which also contains stills from the film, as well as details on the transfer for this release.

The Bottom Line

I, Daniel Blake is amongst the finer works to come from Ken Loach’s impressive career. A gritty and quietly powerful castigation of the British welfare state, woven into a personal tale that carries with it genuine sadness and authenticity. It’s a timely and affecting release from Criterion.

I, Daniel Blake is available via Criterion from January 16th, 2018.

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