Welcome to Broken Britain 2016
We open on a black screen. What follows next is an increasingly frustrating phone call between Daniel Blake (played by comedian Dave Johns) and an apathetic-sounding healthcare worker, monotonously reeling off a generic tick-box list as to whether he can lift his arms above his head and other basic motor actions. It is a small interaction within the narrative of the film as a whole, but vehemently exemplifies the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of our welfare state with cringe-worthy comedy and horror.
On the outset, Ken Loach’s new release (his 2nd Palme D’or Winner) is a bleak, political, social document regarding employment eligibility; railing against the broken welfare system in the UK like a galvanised harpy screeching from atop a mountain with flailing limbs and talons – but in many ways this is just the veneer of I, Daniel Blake; at its heart this is a classic Loach story, populated with working class characters with warmth and humanity, simply trying to survive together.
The eponymous Mr Blake, a carpenter from Newcastle, is recovering from a serious heart attack. He’s been told not to return to work by his doctor, but Daniel’s been denied sickness benefits and in order to receive any kind of money whilst recovering, he has to begrudgingly apply for job seekers allowance, for which he must actively spend 35 hours a week searching for employment and subsequently proving it to his unsympathetic appointed Job Centre adviser. Daniel is a luddite who doesn’t know how to work a computer, so spends this time walking around Newcastle, interacting with prospective employers face-to-face with a handwritten CV. Welcome to Broken Britain 2016; a Britain where the ill are considered well enough to work, and refusal to trudge down to the local Job centre to sign-on will result in being “sanctioned” with cut benefits.
In an interview made before Brexit, David Cameron revealed that he hadn’t the faintest idea how many food banks there were in Britain and it doesn’t appear that Theresa May has been given the statistics either. Loach barely mentions the Government in the film (apart from a scene where Daniel is spray-painting his statement on the Job Centre wall and Ian Duncan Smith is vaguely called out), but instead uses the story to persuade audiences to take action.
You get the feeling that within I, Daniel Blake there are multiple voices from real people, multiple stories from real people that use Daniel as their megaphone. The film is based in fact – there are people every day that face the predicaments that we see Daniel and Katie trying to cope with.
This particular tale is interlinked with that of East End Mila Kunis look-a-like Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother-of-two who is relocated from London to Newcastle because there’s no public housing available for them. She’s sanctioned because on her first day in a strange city, she’s late to the Job centre for an assessment. Daniel looks after her and helps her by making repairs around her flat. This unlikely pairing shouldn’t really work; he has a dry wit and life experience, with real practical knowledge, but, like Katie, is as innocent as a child about the new world of welfare. On paper it would have been easy to turn Daniel into a leachy curmudgeon, exploiting Katie’s vulnerability, but this is where I, Daniel Blake stands out from the crowd; Dave Johns plays the role stoically and with restraint – it could be easy enough to imagine your own grandfather or father in this predicament. Hayley Squires plays the role with authentic conviction and I’m sure it won’t be long until she breaks out into the mainstream. There’s a tenderness between the two that just works, and when the credits have rolled you will be staring at the screen, (maybe with a tear in your eye) in silent contemplation.
There are scenes throughout the film that will make you boil with rage (the harrowing food stamp segment, the way that claimants are told their fate will be settled by the hideously titled ‘Decision Maker,’ the stone cold Job Centre woman who robotically informs Daniel that his job seeker’s allowance will be cut) and it’s easy enough to settle on these people as the arbitrary villains of the piece, but in typical Ken Loach fashion we have to look inward – yes, people watch films to be entertained, to have fun and a laugh, but I, Daniel Blake commands you to be educated in the social upheaval that we as a country are currently indifferent to. What will also stay with you is that despite the heartlessness and abject cruelty of the system state, decent people will strive and flourish together when the chips are down.
Preachy? Maybe. Informative? Absolutely. A wake-up call to the indifferent? Definitely.
Review by Anthony Self