Technically, Red Ken is an adjective reserved for London’s ex mayor and socialist extraordinaire Ken Livingstone, but nothing stops one from applying it to this most leftist of British film-makers, Ken Loach, who for some mysterious reason – probably his exotic status as a communist, working-class championing Englishman – as virtually assured of a Cannes slot no matter the quality of his work. This year he is back with “I, Daniel Blake”, a nondescript tedious drama barely able to contain its social didacticism, served with the sophistication of a forth-grade morality play.
“I, Daniel Blake” tells the story of ageing Newcastle carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) who has recently suffered a heart attack and while recovering is advised by his doctor against going back to work. On the whim of a touchy, bureaucratic albeit privately outsourced health care assessor, Daniel is unable to claim disability benefits while on the mend and is forced to register as a jobseeker at the local job centre. This will precipitate him into an odyssey of online jobseeker’s allowance applications, CV writing courses and the hell of this awful modern day tool called “the internet”. However, Daniel is at ease with an older style of tools – the carpenter’s box and generally fixing housing problems are his shtick and Loach spares no pains at hammering in this metaphor time after time.
At the job centre Daniel encounters of array of heartless machine-like civil servants with zero empathy for the population they serve, steadfastly sticking to procedure. He also makes the acquaintance of a down-and-out single mother-of-two Katie (Hayley Squires), whom he immediately takes under his wing, developing a saviour complex as she sinks into greater destitution after having been forced to move to Newcastle with her two children because of the unavailability of council housing in her native London.
The intention of the filmmaker is probably to depict a Kafkaesque web of bureaucratic nightmare while at the same time censuring the whittling away of the British welfare state under the present Conservative government, however the manner in which Loach goes about his social critique is so heavy-handed, unoriginal and tedious – what with the two-dimensional grotesqueness of the job centre automatons and the cliché after cliché of young English working-class unemployed single motherhood piled upon Katie – that all the film manages is to virtually drain the relatively privileged Cannes audience of whatever empathy they may have originally borne towards the English underclasses, the proverbial ‘scroungers’ of Thatcher-speak brought to life…
The moralising preachiness of “I, Daniel Blake” – yes, they are nice people, no, they do not deserve to be poor and maltreated by the inhumane capitalist bureaucracy, yes the Conservative party is full of self-serving toffs governing Britain in their own interests – is so commonplace and devoid of any sort of formal or artistic merit, or indeed emotive potential, that watching the film feels rather like a drawn-out lecture by a long-winded Marxist political economy teacher. Thank you for the lesson, Red Ken.