2016 has been pretty lacklustre on the blockbuster front, with an overabundance of disappointing sequels and reboots failing to impress. However, where the year has shined is in its strong display of indie films, and the latest gem is Ken Loach's British-drama I, Daniel Blake.

From Kes to Raining Stones, Loach is a director that knows how to make films that stick with you, for one reason or another. His last film, 2014's Jimmy's Hall, was quite disappointing so all eyes are on I, Daniel Blake - his latest, and possibly final feature - to make amends and return him to form. If I, Daniel Blake is certainly Ken's last film, then you can be sure he goes out with a bang, because this is perhaps one of his finest films yet. From the second this film starts right through to the second the credits roll, this is a whirlwind of emotions as Loach does what he does best: carve out an engrossing story and throw us through the wringer.
Dave Johns plays our eponymous character, a 59-year-old carpenter suffering from a heart condition. When he is deemed unfit for work, after having a heart attack and nearly falling off the scaffolding, with no other income, he has to navigate his way through the benefits system in order to get the aid of state welfare. However, when the system tries to con him out of getting the support he needs, Daniel begins to fight back. Befriending single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) on the way - who has just moved to Newcastle from London and has found herself in a similar situation - the pair form a tender friendship when Daniel offers her support to get back on her feet.

Where I, Daniel Blake shines is its simplicity and its story. The screenplay by Loach's regular collaborator Paul Laverty is incredible in how perfectly, and honestly, it captures this side of civilisation that we so often make nothing of; Laverty's writing is sublime and sharp and it feels real. The dialogue is never contrived, nor idealistic, but rather, it's nuanced and genuine which is why it works so well, and it's the attention to little details too that help further ground this film and convey the realism depicted here. Both Loach and Laverty have also carved out such great characters, that we instantly attach to and empathise for. Again, they feel like real people going through these real situations and you can't help but feel for them and want to see them succeed. Daniel Blake himself is instantly likable, oozing such heart and warmth, despite the tough situations he is going through. We care for him and invest in him and his struggle and his story and we invest in his journey throughout the film. His backstory never feels sappy and corny, but instead is tragic and devastating. Also shining is Katie, who is the more vulnerable, unhinged of the pair, yet, like Daniel, she's likable and we also care for her story and invest in it too.

Hayley Squires gives a truly outstanding performances as Katie here, she's a very broken and struggling character and Squires delivers this with respect and aplomb, giving a performance strong enough to rival any lead actress Academy-Award nominee this year. In fact, the acting in I, Daniel Blake is great from everyone, even youngsters Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan, both who are so great as Katie's children Daisy and Dylan. However, it's no surprise that it's Daniel Blake himself, Dave Johns, that is the standout here. Johns brings a real sincerity to the role and brings enough warmth, charisma and heart to completely win us over; we empathise for him and his struggle and Johns plays this optimistic, yet still slowly mentally deteriorating, man with such nuance and believability, adding a lot of levity to the proceedings too. Dave disappears into the role and we only ever see him as Daniel; it really is an Oscar-calibre performance for the ages. The characters here are all so well rounded and finely crafted and because of how much we root for them and invest in their stories, it makes the drama all the more devastating and heart-wrenching.

I, Daniel Blake is heartbreaking. This isn't just British drama at its best, it's drama in general at its best. The film can be tough to watch at times, as a result of how honest and real it is in its depiction of the lives and struggles some people have to endure - a scene in a food bank, in particular, is incredibly tear-jerking and emotionally deteriorating - but its definitely worth the watch, nonetheless. This is a brutally honest and unflinching piece of cinema, and it's often rather moving, but its also laden with nuance and heart and humanity and is so compelling and brilliant that its hard not to be engrossed by it all. My only flaw with the film is perhaps that the first act feels a little slow and it really takes a while for the film to find its footing but, as soon as it does, I, Daniel Blake will gut-punch you with the "feels". This is a film that will make you laugh; it will make you cry; it will make you appreciate film; it will make you grateful for you have in life; it will make you think but, most of all, it will change how you view the world - and hopefully for the better. Bravo, Ken Loach, you've done it again.

VERDICT:

I, Daniel Blake is by no means an easy film to swallow; it's brutally honest and unflinching in its depiction of lower-class civilisation. Yet, Ken Loach tells this story with sincerity and nuance, making for one of the most heartbreaking, moving and incredible films of the year. It's simply astounding.


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About the Author

Awais Irfan
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.

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