This is the most heart-rending film I've seen not just in this year but in several years. It's been much talked about in this country and has gained wide praise as being something quite exceptional, which is precisely what it turned about to be.
The film constitutes a howl of protest, desperation and frustration against a government-invoked system for claiming unemployment state benefits, describing itself as 'caring', in particular for those worst placed financially, even though all the evidence speaks otherwise.
I knew it was going to be hard to watch, dealing as it does, with an ageing, widowed man, a former carpenter in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, still of working age but caught in a 'Catch 22' situation of having a heart condition for which his doctor classes him as being unfit for work, yet is deemed to be capable of working according to physical ability criteria set by the government. He is put in the position of having to look for and apply for work, and providing evidence that he's done so - work which, if offered to him, he cannot accept. If he doesn't do this he's under threat of losing his benefits for a period, that length of time increasing on each occasion he fails to do what is required.
In a visit to a Social Security office he witnesses an argument between a single mother of two small children who's just moved up to the north-east from London, and a claimants clerk who maintains that because she's a few minutes late for her appointment (a late bus to blame) she has to start the process again. The man intervenes on her behalf and, for his pains, gets ejected from the building with the family by cold, impersonal staff who are just "following the rules they are given".
He strikes up a friendship with the young mother, modestly helping her out with his carpentry and other skills where he can. The film follows the rise and falls (nearly all 'falls') in the fortunes of these two, in similar circumstances though disparate as a pair.
There are distressing moments, when they come up time and time again against the wall of officialdom which requires everybody to act 'just so', and if they fall short in any respect, if they don't tick the necessary boxes, they will suffer in consequence. Just too bad for them! How the young female is, during the film's course, reduced to particular states in two different senses, is frightening and troubling, to say the least.
The man is played by Dave Johns (better known for his TV appearances here in a range of roles) and the young mother by Hayley Squires. who has made a number of films, though none quite as up-front as she is here.There's already talk of the two of them being certs for award nominations. They are both so outstandingly good in this film that if they don't get at least nods for the BAFTAs it would be a grave injustice - and Oscar nominations would also be well deserved.
It's a Ken Loach film. Loach, now 80 and a lifelong ardent socialist, has been, through his long line of politically-edged films, a thorn in the side of Conservative governments for over half a century - and this is surely his most polemical film of them all.
I've just two complaints about this otherwise excellent film. The first is my old bugbear of indistinct dialogue. Being set in Newcastle, many of the accents are Geordie - a part of the country not far from where I myself hail, so I normally don't have any trouble with the dialect. But the delivery of the words here sometimes leaves something to be desired - most especially when there's a scene change and in this film, instead of the action moving in next shot straight to the new scene there's a slow fade-to-blank screen a number of times, giving the impression that what's just been said is of crucial importance. Sad, then, that on at least two occasions I couldn't make out what the final words of the most recent scene were when they were obviously material to the development.
The second reservation is that one of the children, the girl aged about 9-10(?), is so refined and speaks in such mature tones, unlike her mother and younger brother, that she is scarcely believable.
However, even with these two provisos it didn't shake me from my conclusion that this is indeed a remarkable film. I was deeply moved a number of times and, I'm not ashamed to say, actually came out of the cinema moist-eyed. I wouldn't be at all surprised to be told that quite a proportion of the always totally-attentive audience would have experienced a stage or two even beyond that condition............8.
56 minutes ago