Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. United Kingdom/France/Belgium, 2016. Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, British Film Institute, BBC Films, Les Films Du Fleuve, France 2 Cinema, Canal+, France Televisions, Le Pacte, Cineart, Cine+, VOO, BeTV. Screenplay by Paul Laverty. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Produced by Rebecca O’Brien. Music by George Fenton. Production Design by Fergus Clegg, Linda Wilson. Costume Design by Jo Slater. Film Editing by Jonathan Morris. Cannes Film Festival Awards 2016. Toronto International Film Festival 2016.
After suffering a heart attack on the job, a Newcastle construction worker (Dave Johns) tries to claim disability benefits and is plunged into nine circles of bureaucratic hell, constantly at odds with cold and disinterested government employees who give him non-stop double speak about forms to fill and online links to visit. A chance encounter with a single mother (Hayley Squires) who is barely making ends meet inspires a friendship that makes for the warm centre of a cold world told with the usual spare style of Ken Loach, working yet again from a solid script by his longtime collaborator Paul Laverty. The sick joke here is that, thanks to a degraded welfare system and an alarming divide between rich and poor, the post-war socialist paradise that Loach documented in The Spirit of ’45 has failed and, ironically, considerate and kind treatment comes from the church, which is supposed to be an outdated and elitist symbol. Nothing being shown here is new territory for either director or writer, and while they do not disappoint fans in the least bit, there is the slight feeling that they’re simplifying past efforts like Carla’s Song or Sweet Sixteen for the masses. Laverty’s script has a few unnecessary turns of high melodrama, and Loach usually disguises such manipulation as docudrama a lot better; even Johns’ somewhat opaque performance seems to be part of the film’s determination to put its message across with blunt force, outshone easily by Squires, who walks away with the entire film. While I don’t doubt that the details of social services that are on display here are a real experience for far too many people (no matter what Iain Duncan Smith says about it), it seems odd that the film insists on such a simplistic portrayal of civil servants as either testy imperial guards or ineffective bleeding-heart fools. The message would have been effective enough had they let the welfare officers be as exasperated as everyone else by the terrible goods they’re selling, but Loach is too good a filmmaker to let that be a major detraction to what is otherwise a satisfying experience.