Film review – I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

Of the many great films released in 2016, few left their mark on my conscience quite as much as Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake”. I held off from reviewing it at the time, but decided to revisit it recently for a second time to make an honest attempt at reviewing it.

The film follows Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner on the living in Newcastle. He finds himself out of work after an suffering a heart attack has forced him to take a break, with his doctor telling him he cannot return for fear of another attack. He is navigating Britain’s complex benefits system in search of Employment and Support Allowance, for which he needs a Work Capability Assessment (undertaken by government workers and is completely separate from his own doctor’s assessment). Whilst at the job centre, he notices single-mother-of-two Daisy (Hayley Squires) having an argument in the job centre. They soon strike up an unlikely friendship as they continue to come up against brick walls that force them to make increasingly tough decisions.

I, Daniel Blake is social commentary at its absolute best

Typical of Loach’s output, many of the actors involved in the film are amateurs. This might give the film a rough-around-the-edges quality but equally provides a realism as the story develops. Knowing this prior to watching the film allowed me to give it some leeway on the performances.

The plot developments as the two characters get embroiled in complication after complication are akin to a horror film. Our lead character is behind on his bills and struggles to use computers, meaning he can’t navigate the government websites to retrieve the correct forms to fill in to access the benefits he’s entitled to. It’s overwhelmingly frustrating and will be familiar to anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar situation.

Squires’s performance is absolutely striking. The most harrowing memory of the film for most viewers will inevitably be a highly memorable scene at the local food bank. Rightly so – it’s a performance something taken to an entirely different level by her delivery. It’s unsettling, which is obviously its intention. She’s a great find in her debut role and will undoubtedly go on to even greater roles.

But the film isn’t about the actors, or about delivery of certain lines. It is solely a commentary on the broken support systems provided for the many 1000s of people in Britain who they should be helping. There are a small few people who endeavour to exploit a system, but in doing so they provide an excuse for those in charge to make the processes overly complicated for everyone.

Far more disturbing than this, the small few that do successfully exploit the system are handing media outlets the ammunition to criticise the rest, tarring them all with the same brush. Shamefully, most of Britain believe what is written in the media and assume the worst of people who are in dire need of assistance.

For all its shortcomings, this film shines a light on some of the most pressing issues facing a country that is supposed to be in a fantastic state. Whether you like it or not, the message is one that simply can’t be ignored.

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Cannes Film Festival 2016 – Winners in Full

Ken Loach has become the eigth filmmaker in history to win the Palme d’Or on more than one occasion, for his film ‘I, Daniel Blake’.

Here’s a list of winners in full.

Palme d’Or
Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’

Grand Prix
Xavier Dolan’s ‘It’s Only the End of the World’

Jury Prize
Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey’

Camera d’Or
Houda Benyamina’s ‘Divines’

Best director (tied)
Olivier Assayas for ‘Personal Shopper’
Cristian Mungiu for ‘Graduation’

Best screenplay
Asghar Farhadi for ‘The Salesman’

Best actress
Jaclyn Jose for ‘Ma ‘Rosa’

Best actor
Shahab Hosseini for ‘The Salesman’

Short film
‘Timecode’, Juanjo Jimenez

Honorary Palme d’Or
Jean-Pierre Léaud

Gate of Hell / 地獄門 (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s film Gate of Hell was a global smash upon its original release, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954, plus a couple of Academy Awards. Now re-released sixty years on by Masters of Cinema and Criterion, cinemaphiles are able to enjoy the film all over again, allowing a whole new generation to appreciate a masterful piece of cinema.

Set in 1159 Japan, the plot centres around Morito Endo (played by Kazuo Hasegawa), who is involved with evacuating Sanjō Palace in Kyoto during a revolt. A woman, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō) volunteers as decoy for the shogun’s sister, and he is amongst those asked to transport her out of the palace and lure the attackers away from the real princess. The plan is successful, and as a reward for his heroism he is offered a gift of his choosing. Unfortunately, he requests Kesa’s hand in marriage, only to find out that she is already wed. For a proud samurai, this is a disastrous embarrassment, and the film from then on deals with the emotional effect this has on Morito, Kesa and Kesa’s husband Wataru Watanabe (played by Isao Yamagata).

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The film looks and sounds brilliant from the start, with the recently developed Eastmancolor used to bring 12th Century Japan to life. It is an alternative view of the shogun era of Japan, which so often at the time had been detailed in popular films by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, but in black and white. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this film back in 1954 and be blown away by the loud visuals and intricate costumes.

That said, a film wouldn’t endure for sixty years without a fantastic story and excellent acting, and this film has those in abundance. It’s paced perfectly and at 90 minutes there isn’t much in the way of filler. The actors are on top form too, harking back to the recently-diminished silent film era with long periods of silence counteracted with extreme close ups as emotions engulf their faces. It is a clever technique and one that would have helped set it apart when it reached Western audiences.

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Sourced from the 1954 New York Times review of Gate Of Hell, the comments from Jun Tsuchiya, Consul General of Japan, add context to the success of the film and the impact it had on the wider reputation of Japan globally. Speaking at the premiere, he said “The successful entree of Japanese films in the world market, may well have not only cultural, but also, I venture to suggest, economic consequences for both our countries. To me, it is entirely conceivable that the export of superior films will greatly help my country in its present unremitting struggle to become self-sufficient, to rely on trade, not aid.”

It is interesting to think of those comments in terms of the global view of Japan today. Buoyed by the hyper-acceleration of popularity of new technology and most global brands from Japan being technology-based (Sony and Nintendo spring to mind), it is ironic that they pulled themselves out of financial struggles to launch themselves forwards by looking so far into their past, especially when in this case the film’s initial popularity seems to be in part down to the use of cutting-edge film colouring technology.

Gate of Hell is out now on Masters of Cinema and Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.