I don’t know about you, but I’ve been noticing the word “populism” popping up a lot in recent months. Populism itself, however, has been less, well, popular. For a taste of the real deal, you could do a lot worse than check out the latest film from veteran British director Ken Loach: I, Daniel Blake.
He, Daniel Blake (played by Dave Johns), is a 59-year-old fellow living in Newcastle, a carpenter and a widower recovering from a serious heart attack and under doctor’s orders not to return to work. Much of the movie follows Daniel’s efforts to negotiate the labyrinthine and generally uncaring British social services system, made especially daunting by his unfamiliarity with things like CVs and computers. (“A cursor? Well, that’s a feckin’ fine name for it!”)
In the course of his bureaucratic travails, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother recently relocated from London who’s having her own troubles getting aid for herself and her kids. The two become a downtrodden mutual aid society—he helps fix up their tenement flat, they cook for him and provide a measure of companionship. Loach’s vision? People aren’t terrible, but the inefficient, callous systems they create are.
Loach has been making unapologetically leftist films for decades (check out Riff-Raff or Land and Freedom if you ever get a chance), and while I, Daniel Blake succumbs to some of the clichés of socialist realism, it’s still a potent experience, with flawless performances from Squires and Johns (making his feature film debut).
One heartbreaking scene, set in a food bank, demonstrates how personal dignity is eroded by a society that can’t even be bothered to feed its most vulnerable members. From just these few minutes, it’s clear Loach has more empathy for his fellow humans in the tip of his eyelash than Donald Trump and all his apologists and cronies have in all their bloated husks.