Loach’s Cannes triumph comes two years after he nearly quit
Two years ago the veteran British director Ken Loach said he was ready to throw in the towel. But on Sunday, only weeks from his 80th birthday, he won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival.
It is the second time that fiercely politically engaged filmmaker has lifted the festival’s top prize.
“When you get very old you just get pleased to see the sun rise the next day,” Loach told reporters after winning.
“I, Daniel Blake”, his story of a carpenter injured at work and a young single mother struggling with the absurdities of the welfare system under Britain’s Conservative government, brought tears to the eyes of hard-bitten critics.
It may also make the careers of its two almost unknown stars, Hayley Squires and stand-up comedian Dave Johns.
“‘I, Daniel Blake’ was made to give voice to those who need it. The Palme d’Or is a triumph that makes that voice extremely loud,” Squires tweeted after the news broke.
While Loach won at Cannes a decade ago with “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, a historical drama set during Ireland’s war of independence from Britain, his new film brings him back to his kitchen-sink roots.
Loach told reporters that he mentioned retiring when working on his last film “Jimmy’s Hall” “at a moment of maximum pressure when we hadn’t shot a foot of film and the mountain in front of us was quite high and I thought ‘I can’t get through this again’.”
– Got his mojo back –
But he has since got his mojo and his hunger back.
Critics were particularly taken by the way he showed the desperation of people caught in the benefits maze which seems constructed just to frustrate them.
British critic Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian told AFP what moved him most was a “scene in the food bank when (Hayley Squires) just gulps into the can of baked beans. The expression on her face, the sheer horror, the gut-wrenching realisation that it has come to this…”
The world of work — or the lack of it — has long been a favourite theme for the veteran director, a stalwart of English social realist cinema alongside directors Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears.
He memorably visited the subject in 1991 with “Riff-Raff”, which explored the lives of casual workers in London.
“Bread & Roses” recounted a strike by cleaning staff at a Los Angeles hotel, and “The Navigators” (2001) followed five rail workers as their industry undergoes privatisation.
But Loach has always been realistic about the impact his films can make.
“I never said to myself that my films could change things,” he told The Guardian. “At best it can add its voice to public outrage.”
Loach’s roots are impeccably working class, growing up in Nuneaton, near Birmingham, the son of an electrician and a dressmaker.
He did military service with the Royal Air Force before studying law at Oxford, where he discovered the world of acting, directing and theatre.
– Social conscience –
Later at the BBC he began to make television films already marked by his left-wing politics.
In the tradition of social observers such as Charles Dickens and Emile Zola, Loach believes passionately that cinema can be about “ordinary people and their dilemmas” — as in his early “Kes” in 1969, about a working-class boy caring for his pet falcon, which won two BAFTA awards.
Even Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg — whose own big-budget work lies at the other end of the cinematic spectrum — admitted at Cannes that he is a Loach fan, having been introduced to his work by the actor Daniel Day Lewis who sat him down to watch “Kes”.
In his 19 appearances at Cannes, Loach has also won three Jury Prizes for “The Angels’ Share” — another comedy — in 2012, “Raining Stones” in 1993, and “Hidden Agenda” in 1990.
“My Name is Joe” won Peter Mullan best actor at Cannes in 1998.
Loach’s political commitment saw him helping found Britain’s Left Unity party in 2013, which advocated stronger public services and wealth redistribution.