You can hear Daniel Blake’s frustration from the off. Before we’ve even seen Ken Loach’s latest protagonist we eavesdrop on a conversation he has with a supposed medical professional, who is working on behalf of the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and is interviewing Daniel as part of his claim for Employment and Support Allowance. Blake – an out-of-work joiner from Newcastle-upon-Tyne – has recently suffered a heart attack and his doctor has advised him not to work; yet the woman he is speaking to seemingly asks him about every part of his body except for his heart, which leads to some choice answers as Daniel’s patience runs out. Despite the fact he has filled in a 52-page form prior to their conversation and despite the fact health professionals have told him to take it easy and take time off work, Daniel Blake’s claim, eventually, is referred to an adjudicator, and thus begins a Brazil-esque battle with bureaucracy that would be far funnier if it weren’t based on the real life experiences of a great many people.
The screenplay by Paul Laverty – a regular Loach collaborator – follows Daniel (Dave Johns) as he negotiates his way through a subsequent claim for Jobseekers Allowance, which he makes because he needs money to survive while the first claim is under adjudication. The problem is that Jobseekers Allowance claimants in the UK have to be available for work and have to prove that they are looking for work. Daniel comes up against a whole load of new problems: when told the DWP is ‘digital by default’ he explains that he is ‘pencil by default’ – he doesn’t have an electronic CV and can’t complete the initial claim form due to his lack of experience with computers; when he is offered a job he cannot take it on account of his health; and the Job Centre staff he deals with are – with one exception – an unsympathetic bunch who put further obstacles in his way. Laverty’s script wrings plenty of humour out of Daniel’s plight – and Johns is a comedian by trade, so his delivery and timing are often very good – though even when doing so it never loses sight of the gravity of the situation. Daniel needs money quickly, as does Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two recently transplanted – ludicrously – from London to Newcastle due to a housing shortage down south (in a city where tens of thousands of homes are currently empty or unoccupied for long periods).
The pair meet in the Job Centre; a flustered Katie – new to the city and looking for work in an environment where jobs are scarce – took the wrong bus with her two children and missed her signing-on appointment, which means that she too will be receiving no benefit money from the state for the time being. Daniel quickly realises that Katie’s situation is worse than his, befriends her and starts to fix things in her new house for free; he even leaves her £20 for the electricity and gas meter. You could argue that Loach and Laverty overplay the sense of benevolence and community spirit that binds Daniel together with Katie, and indeed that binds these two characters with others (neighbours, shop managers, food bank volunteers, etc.); however my experience of Newcastle is that it is, generally-speaking, a friendly city – as cities go – and thus it serves as the perfect location for such random and organised acts of kindness by citizens towards one another (which, even when depicted within a work of drama, ring far truer than the vote-grabbing, issue-dodging, smokescreen soundbites and rhetoric recently peddled by the likes of David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, among others). And I think the reason the friendship works here is due to the extremity of the situation these two people find themselves in: both adults are suddenly alone after living with loved ones; and both are struggling to hold themsleves together as the state systematically strips them of their dignity while withholding money that they both need and are entitled to receive. There is one scene here set in a food bank that really brings the extremity of the situation home, and perhaps makes the viewer understand why bonds are formed quickly under certain circumstances, if a justification for the empathy on display is needed. It’s already being talked about as a potentially-iconic cinematic sign of the times; perhaps one day taking its place with Ewan McGregor imploring us to ‘choose life’, or Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard saying goodbye on a station platform, or Rita Tushingham discovering that she is pregnant, or Phil Daniels telling his superior to stick his job up his arse, or Tom Courtenay marching down the street with a band in tow, or even The Beatles being chased around town by screaming fans. It’s incredibly sad, where some of those mentioned above are joyous or rebellious moments, and an incredibly powerful couple of minutes of filmmaking.Loach’s latest won the Palme d’Or this year and suffered a typically-childish early critical backlash at the end of the festival (apparently because the judges ultimately preferred it to audience favourite Toni Erdmann). Ignore all that bullshit; this is the kind of film you should see, urgently, particularly if you live in the UK. It’s a sobering dose of realism, shot in an unfussy, straight fashion by DP Robbie Ryan and delivered – in typical Loach style – by non-professional actors, unfamiliar faces and relative newcomers (so, like many of his films, there are a couple of imperfect performances here, but that’s fine). I had a hard time accepting the idea that nearly everyone working in the Job Centre was an awful, vindictive automaton (except for one kind lady), but maybe that’s because I spent five years of my early career working in one too, and found my colleagues to be mostly agreeable and, where possible, helpful (though I should add this was around 20 years ago, times have changed, and people’s experiences have almost certainly always depended on where they are signing-on, as well as their social background and other factors). I also found it hard, initially, to believe that Blake’s claim would be rejected in the first place, or that he would have to produce so much detailed evidence about his job search; I last signed-on for a short while just over a year ago and had nothing like as much hassle, but maybe I was lucky in avoiding the kind of Orwellian nightmare that befalls the characters here. It has been brought to my attention by a fellow Letterboxd user that Laverty and Loach received the input of many disgruntled former DWP workers while writing and making I, Daniel Blake, and so it’s likely to be as true to life as a drama can possibly be. What a shame.
Ultimately the film is a force for good, despite the overall bleakness and sadness that envelops it, particularly during the final stages. This is a stirring, moving work of protest that – in its own quiet, dignified way – angrily rejects the notion of benefits claimants being scroungers and layabouts and cheats that has long been peddled by governments and right-wing newspapers in the UK, and I’m all for it. Just as importantly, I, Daniel Blake highlights the fact that a welfare and benefits system originally designed with the intention of helping people who need help (many of whom, like Daniel, have paid into it for years while working) has become impenetrable for some by deliberate and cruel design.
Directed by: Ken Loach.
Written by: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Kema Sikazwe, Steven Richens.
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan.
Editing: Jonathan Morris.
Music: George Fenton.
Running Time: 100 minutes.