I, Daniel Blake

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.

i-daniel-blake-backdrop

Daniel, Katie and her kids

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.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Year: 2016.

Comments 8

  1. Jordan Dodd November 1, 2016

    You say it needs to be seen particularly in the UK… how different would it relate to somewhere like Australia? I’ve had my eye on this for a while, ever since it got announced that we’d get a few sessions of it via a British Film Festival. Mate if you have the time, I’d love to hear some recommendations cos there are a lot of films and you are in the UK. I’ll give you the link in case you can be buggered having a look 🙂

    http://britishfilmfestival.com.au/films

    cheers buddy

    • Stu November 2, 2016

      Hard to say, really, but the central themes are pertinent in most countries even if the intricacies of the welfare systems are different, so I think it’ll relate OK. I’d be interested to read your take on it for sure.
      In terms of the line up…to be honest a lot of them haven’t had full release over here yet (I didn’t go to anything during the London Film Festival last month, where a couple of those premiered). So I can’t really offer any advice! Fuck me though…it looks like there’s a lot of costume/period dramas featuring well-spoken luvvies! I guess the antidote to those are the Loach films and the ones near the bottom, most of which I’ve seen. Sid And Nancy and The Man Who Fell To Earth are a bit more out there!

      • Jordan Dodd November 4, 2016

        Ahh that’s all good, though I’d see if you’ve seen any. I’m def gonna see Daniel Blake, also looking at ‘Winter’ if you saw that one in the list. I’m not big into period dramas so there isn’t a lot more to choose from! The Man Who Fell To Earth…. is that the Bowie one? That’d be pretty cool to see on the big screen

        • Stu November 4, 2016

          Yeah, Bowie’s best acting performance for my money…and a weird film. Didn’t know anything about Winter beforehand but watched the trailer on that page and it looks quite a heavy one. Could be good thoguh.

        • Jordan Dodd November 4, 2016

          Yeah I’m gonna try and see Winter, unfortunately it is only playing twice and both sessions are at 8:30pm. I don’t live close to the cinema its playing at so it makes it hard, but I really like the look of it

          When I saw that Bowie film I remember thinking when I saw it, a) it’d look great on a big screen, and b) I needed to watch it again, it was that sort of movie. Hopefully I can catch that, it certainly is a weird film. And I like weird 😀

        • Jordan Dodd November 4, 2016

          Have you disabled comments? Just wanted to comment on Lo And Behold. I haven’t seen a Herzog film at all but then read about this. The enthusiasm and curiosity you write about has me even more interested, though I’m sure there are some classics of his I need to see!

        • Stu November 7, 2016

          Yeah, sorry dude, just a temporary thing. I’ve got my first child due any day soon so Im trying to do anything I can in terms of blogging to reduce time (or at least allowing me to concentrate as much time as possible to watching/writing/posting). Once things settle down I’ll switch all that back on, and will continue dropping by your site and all the others I follow regularly in the meantime anyway.

        • Jordan Dodd November 8, 2016

          Ahhh that’s right, I remember you posting about that. Congrats mate! 🙂

          Random question, I may have asked it before, how old are you? It just makes me think when someone talks about having a child, I dunno…

          anyway, END OF RAMBLE 🙂

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