Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Five decades after first earning prestige, acclaim and controversy with such works as Cathy Come Home and Kes, Ken Loach shows in I, Daniel Blake that he is as resolute as ever in underlining the social injustices endemic in contemporary Britain. The injustice he has sought to portray here is that of the benefits system in the UK, a system that Loach feels has let down the people who need it the most due to its rigidly bureaucratic structure and for what he has described as “conscious cruelty”. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Loach has demonstrated, perhaps better than any other director in Britain, film’s power as a social and political vehicle. Film has the power to inspire empathy in audiences that transcends time, space and circumstance. Having grown up in a middle-class household, I haven’t got the slightest idea what it is like to struggle through life with the prospects of starvation, squalor and destitution looming over me. That is why films like I, Daniel Blake are so important. Even if you don’t believe that this story is indicative of a larger problem throughout the country, I challenge anyone to leave this film feeling unmoved.
When we first meet Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner in Newcastle, he is recovering from a major heart attack that has rendered him unable to work. His application for the Employment and Support Allowance is however denied when he fails to score the sufficient amount of points required in his assessment, an assessment carried out by a faceless “healthcare professional” who has not even spoken to Daniel’s doctor. While Daniel awaits his appeal, his only option is to apply for a Jobseekers Allowance. A condition of receiving this allowance is that Daniel must actively seek work (even though he is physically unfit to accept any job that he applies for). While visiting the job centre, he meets Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother who has just moved out of a homeless persons’ hostel in London with her children Dylan (Dylan McKiernan) and Daisy (Briana Shann). After she gets sanctioned for turning up late to her appointment, leaving her unable to provide enough food and heat for her family, Daniel offers her his help as they both struggle to overcome the poverty that they face.
In his depiction of what is a deathly serious and divisive issue in Britain, Loach has created a film of profound anger, humour and humanity. When one bears witness to the robotic indifference Daniel receives, the officious hoops that he is forced to jump through, and the despairing futility of his efforts, it isn’t hard to imagine the desperation and frustration he must be feeling. When Daniel, a man who hasn’t the faintest idea how a computer works, finds that his application must be submitted electronically, the job centre’s managers are unsympathetic to his helplessness. When he spends over an hour on the phone waiting for his call to be put through so that he might ask for his appeal, he is told that no action can take place until he receives a letter confirming a decision that has already been made. When he spends his week walking from lot to lot submitting prospective CVs for jobs that he cannot accept, he is refused the allowance due to inadequate proof of his efforts. For all of Daniel’s labours, the representatives he must deal with might as well be David Walliams stoically declaring “computer says no”.
And yet Daniel’s case never feels wholly despondent. Dave Johns plays Daniel with a comic touch, responding to his ludicrous dilemma with the sense of drollness that it deserves. He also shows himself to be resilient, as well as kind and caring, in his friendship with Katie and her children as he offers to help her around the house. Katie, played affectively by Squires, finds herself in a desperately pitiful situation, more so than Daniel because her children are suffering as well, and is not strong enough to deal with it alone. In the absence of work the best she can do is let herself starve so that her children can eat. Her despair is driven home in one particularly heartbreaking scene set in a food bank. As the benefits system incessantly allows these two characters to suffer, Daniel and Katie find that the best thing they can do is support and provide hope for each other as they carry on. The sense of community and compassion that they share is what makes this film as moving as it is.
Loach won his second Palme d’Or for this film and, with all the passion and tenacity he brings to the story, it isn’t hard to see why. The story that he tells is of a man who gets beaten down and trodden on by a cold, pitiless system that views him not as a man but as a statistic. Loach, who has dedicated his entire career towards relentlessly and uncompromisingly standing up for the underdog, is damning in his condemnation of this system and its refusal to help the hundreds of thousands of Daniel Blakes and Katie Morgans all over the country. The social realist approach he takes allows the film avoid the trappings of being preachy or condescending in delivering its message. The film is utterly authentic in its natural sincerity and kitchen sink realism and stands amongst the finest work that Loach has produced. Watching I, Daniel Blake was one of the most moving cinematic experiences I had this year and, with the world going the way it is, films like this are now more important than ever.