I, Daniel Blake
UK (2016) Dir. Ken Loach
“When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for!”
Ken Loach may be 80 years-old and has probably covered just about every social issue in his prolific fifty-plus year film career but I, Daniel Blake shows that his taste for trenchant and unabashed opprobrium towards British social injustice hasn’t dissipated over time and good job too.
The eponymous Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a 59 year-old carpenter recovering from a recent heart attack which has forced him out of work and onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) benefits. While his doctor has struck him off work, a government assigned health assessor has declared Daniel fit for work, taking him off ESA and onto Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) while his appeal date is being processed.
At the Job Centre where Daniel struggles with the stringent and inflexible demands and the haughty staff, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum recently moved to Newcastle from London and helps her out while her benefits are sanctioned. Daniel does his best to comply with the conditions of his JSA claim while to his appeal date is still not set, putting further pressure on his physical and emotional well being.
Loach may have an illustrious and revered catalogue yet this is the first film of his I have ever watched, and this is the first film I have ever seen that I can relate to wholesale. An openly proud “Lefty”, Loach has rubbed up the right wing for many years, striking a particular nerve with the (at time of writing) current Tory Government with this sharply observed dissertation of their treatment towards the jobless.
Many on the right have dismissed this film as fiction, a distortion and unrealistic but these critics have never been in the same position as its characters and the people it reflects; I have and I can say this as accurate a representation as it gets from my experience. If anyone has had an easy ride from their Job Centre then more power to you but I have to speak as I find.
The film begins with just the dialogue of Daniel’s assessment over the opening credits with the assessor asking her learned-by-rote fatuous and irrelevant questions, and her ignoring of Daniel’s reminder that his heart is the problem. Next, he gets a letter saying he won’t be getting his ESA which prompts a phone call to the DWP and a long wait on the phone, complete with the first movement of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played on loop.
We’re not even twenty minutes into the film by this point and already one should be able to sympathise with Daniel and share his frustration as the hopeless DWP representative spews off more rehearsed and unhelpful bureaucratic obfuscation. Being a life-long chippy, Daniel has no use for computers, therefore finding himself immediately behind the 8-Ball with his JSA claim which is done online.
“Digital is our default” Daniel is told by a Job Centre staff member “Pencil is my default” Daniel replies defiantly. After numerous failed attempts at the library, Daniel gets help from his computer savvy neighbour China (Kema Sikazwe), who makes his money selling stolen trainers. But Daniel has to deal with the sneering Job Centre officer Sheila (Sharon Percy), an officious woman with no sympathy or interest in Daniel’s plight.
Critics have suggested this isn’t a fair representation of the Job Centre staff but I can assure you everyone who has signed on has encountered their own “Sheila” (or two or three or…). For Katie, she is sanctioned right off the bat for being late to her interview, caused by not being used to the area, a reason Sheila refuses to accept, throwing Katie out for daring to get flustered over this.
With her two kids, Dylan (Dylan McKiernan) and Daisy (Briana Shann), Katie is already at her wits end but kindhearted Daniel is on hand to help fix up her home and amuse the kids. In the film’s most emotionally raw and devastating scene, Katie and the kids go to as food bank for the first time, and Katie breaks down after being caught tucking into tin of baked beans through being so hungry.
Elements of this scenario were recently reproduced in the TV soap Eastenders but Loach makes sure the gravity and pressure of the situation hits home with a punch to the solar plexus that should tear at your conscience – if not, you have a heart of stone. It’s a powerful piece of acting from Hayley Squires and young Brianna Shann too, providing a stark and uncomfortable insight into the pain engendered by poverty forced onto people by the system.
Yet the film’s final act is where the reality gives way to melodrama as Katie follows the wrong path to earn money whilst Daniel’s fortunes take a turn for the worse. It leads to a rather predictable and preachy conclusion but an efficacious one nonetheless, again pushing the emotional limits of the actors. As the credits roll, it is certainly hard not to feel ashamed, humbled and angered by the events of this story and the shamelessly arrogant and pernicious actions of the DWP and the government that inspired them.
Dave Johns is known as a stand-up comedian, revealed in the cheeky side of Daniel’s personality, but he essays Daniel’s exponential decline from chirpy grafter to defeated indigent with dignity, making Daniel a believable character and not just a vapid totem. Ken Loach keeps the pace up throughout, hitting us with one gritty scene after another, the camera remaining passive and observant.
The message behind I, Daniel Blake is all too clear; the real tragedy is that we live in a society where problems like this exist to make a film about in the first place. It may be 100 minutes of despair, hardship and mordant social commentary but it is the most vital and relevant British film since This Is England.