English filmmaker Ken Loach takes umbrage with the term “kitchen sink realism,” a phrase that was loosely applied to British films of the 1950s and ‘60s of young male protagonists at odds with bourgeois values. In fact, the director of “I, Daniel Blake” will simply not abide it to describe his new slice-of-life drama.
“We tried to tell the story in the simplest, most direct, most economical way,” Mr. Loach told The Washington Times of his film, which features no musical score, mostly handheld camera and no cinematic “tricks.”
“Here as these two people, here is what happens to them,” Mr. Loach said.
“I, Daniel Blake” stars British comedian Dave Johns as Daniel, a 59-year-old carpenter who, after a heart attack, is sent to the unemployment offices to both apply for benefits and find another line of work that will be less dangerous for his health. However, Daniel, who has worked with his hands his entire life, has trouble interacting with computers, and his impatience with technology to apply for benefits comes at his own detriment.
While attempting to navigate the labyrinth of the safety net process, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother facing her own troubles, and whom Daniel hopes to help. Despite his best intentions, Daniel faces more hardship when he is deemed ineligible for benefits.
“We thought we should try and tell this story because it’s very different to how it was years ago when the system was set up to help people,” Mr. Loach said of the genesis of the script that he and screenwriter Paul Laverty worked on that eventually evolved into Mr. Laverty’s “I, Daniel Blake” screenplay. “Now it’s there as punishment. People suffer extraordinarily, and they are the poorest and the most vulnerable.”
It was star Mr. Johns’ background as a bricklayer, presaging his comedy career, that attracted Mr. Loach when casting about for his Daniel.
“When we auditioned him, he was very authentic and you believe him,” Mr. Loach said of Mr. Johns, whose dramatic turn in “I, Daniel Blake” is nothing short of mesmerizing. “And he’s quite touching — he can make you smile.
“We just thought, he is the person. He could be that person.”
Mr. Loach, who says he can barely use his own smartphone beyond typing in a phone number, describes Daniel Blake as less a Luddite and more a cog caught up in the Kafkaesque, impersonalized modern world where people are replaced by computers and touchscreens stand in for “human” interaction.
“When it’s imposed as a condition on people whose whole training is not compatible, then [it is being used] to humiliate you,” Mr. Loach said. “You’re not using it to help them.”
Furthermore, Mr. Loach believes that the ongoing Brexit negotiations will continue to make people feel disconnected as well as dismantle the social safety net set up in the U.K. after the Second World War — a disintegration he said in which the British government has a definite hand.
“People pulled together, and there was a sense you were working for the common good,” Mr. Loach said of the U.K. in the years following the end of the war. “That was expressed in the support of people who were sick or out of work.
“Now, in the way global capitalism has developed, that’s gone,” Mr. Loach said of the changing world that has left people like Daniel Blake behind. “There’s no [more] job security. Investment leaves the old industries behind for the countries where they can” get cheaper labor, which Mr. Loach describes as “very destructive.”
He points to the beginning of the British government’s handing out of ownership of the railroads and other industries to the private sector during the years of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as the beginning of the unraveling of that great social experiment of English common good.
“It became about private greed,” Mr. Loach said. “That whole supportive system has really been sabotaged ever since, both by Thatcher and then by [Tony] Blair. We’re [now] living with that mess.
“The underlying ideology is that poverty is the fault of the poor and unemployment is the fault of those who haven’t got work,” Mr. Loach explained. “If you haven’t got work, then you’ve got to be punished. It’s very harsh.”
“I, Daniel Blake” received a standing ovation at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in France, and Mr. Loach was presented a few days later with the prestigious Palme d’Or award. At 79 years of age, he was the oldest winner in Cannes history.
“It was amazing,” the filmmaker, who will turn 81 in a few weeks, said of the accolades. “We didn’t know it would be the top [film]. We were overwhelmed really.”
The film has picked up additional accolades, including BAFTA’s outstanding film of the year. Its limited release in the U.S. begins this weekend.
Despite the awards, Mr. Loach knows that the chances for arthouse fare like “I, Daniel Blake” to find an audience — or to turn a profit — continue to be slim in a marketplace dominated, on both sides of the Atlantic, by high-concept American franchises like the Marvel Comics Universe.
“We can’t rely on the ‘home’ market because it follows American blockbusters,” he said, adding that, increasingly, even English filmmakers like himself must turn to mainland Europe to secure financing.
Furthermore, success continues to lure English filmmakers away to Hollywood, a path Mr. Loach has eschewed his entire career.
When asked what projects he still might have in him, Mr. Loach said he is “knocking ideas” around with friends and colleagues.
“It’s been quite a heavy year, so I’m just tucking in a for a couple months by the fire to read a book,” he said.
“I, Daniel Blake” opens Friday at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema.