When submitting a piece for The Wee Review, the reviewer is advised not to present their thoughts in the first person perspective. The reason for this is that a review is clearly the opinion of that person, so to write, ‘I think that,’ or, ‘I liked this because,’ is redundant, verging on tautological.
However, when it comes to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, it resonates so strongly on a personal level, that I find it impossible not to bring that perspective to any analysis of it. The surprise Palme d’Or Winner at Cannes this year has become very much a hot topic, discussed voraciously for its political standpoint as much as its merits as a piece of cinema. Quite the achievement for an eighty year-old who claimed his previous film, Jimmy’s Hall, would be his last. What a way to make a comeback.
Written by Loach’s long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, it follows Daniel (comedian Dave Johns), a carpenter of late middle-age from Newcastle who has been advised by his doctor that he’s not yet fit to return to work after suffering a heart attack. However, he’s rejected for Employment & Support Allowance by the independent agency to whom the assessments are outsourced (never directly referred to as ATOS, but it’s heavily implied). His only hope for income while he appeals this process is to apply for Job Seekers Allowance, and for jobs that aren’t there, and that he wouldn’t be fit enough to do should he get one.
Caught in the same bureaucratic hamster wheel is young single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been relocated to Newcastle from London as there is no social housing to be had in the capital. She is late for her first signing on appointment due to unfamiliarity with the area and is threatened with sanctions. Genial Dan takes her under his wing and uses his handyman skills to help do up the tumbledown house she’s been allocated. In turn he’s helped by neighbours to jump through the hoops required in order to claim his benefits.
I, Daniel Blake is unashamedly polemical. It’s been accused of simplifying a complex issue, of painting its protagonists as martyrs (he’s a carpenter!), of being outright propaganda. It’s been dismissed as a, “povvo safari for middle-class people,” a sentiment echoed by Murdoch attack pug Toby Young in an article in the Daily Mail. He concludes that it simply, “doesn’t ring true.” I beg to differ.
The welfare state has been a necessary safety net a few times during adulthood. A stint of poor mental health in my early 20’s exacerbated by personal circumstances necessitated it. Soul-destroying enough at the time, and this was back when job centre employees were still advisers rather than enforcers. It served its purpose, and I was infinitely grateful it was there.
More recently, my father was taken ill quite suddenly in not dissimilar circumstances to Daniel. He hasn’t been fit for work since. It became apparent just how firmly the film was going to strike a chord with me when Daniel is examining his medication. That rattle of myriad pills in their container, split into little compartments; all necessary to keep his body functioning, was all too familiar and from there I found some parts of the film almost unbearable. Like Daniel, my father ran out of options after being deemed no longer eligible for ESA. Unlike Daniel, he had a support structure in place.
Around the same time, after another failed bout with the gods of providence I needed the recourse of welfare again, this time thankfully only for a few weeks. Things had changed. The sense was there that I was an inconvenient statistic to be nullified any way possible. Advice had been replaced with targets. Job hunting was now a full time job. It didn’t matter if the travel costs were going to be higher than the wage and it was going to ultimately cost me money to go to work.
I, Daniel Blake depicts this process mercilessly. A difficult situation for anyone is nigh impossible for Daniel, a man who has worked solely with his hands. He’s utterly guileless when it comes to computers, and of course the whole process is online. ‘We’re digital by default,’ he’s told. The world has moved on, he’s obsolete. With some help from friendly neighbours and assistance at the local library – Loach is slyly brilliant at showing how essential these services that are being hacked to ribbons actually are – he’s able to fill in the JSA form while waiting on a call from the ‘decision maker’ regarding his ESA, before he can make his appeal. It’s like a sick merry-go-round designed by Kafka after an intense cheese dream.
For any who would dismiss these scenes as dramatic license, or wilful exaggeration, Laverty and Loach did their research; speaking to over 200 people about their cases. They deliberately left out the most harrowing for fears they wouldn’t be believed. The scenarios they depict are verified in powerful fashion by writers and activists like Jack Monroe and Vonnie Moyes who write passionately and eloquently about their first-hand experience with the system, the endless red tape, and the demonisation to which benefits claimants are subjected. You don’t need to be left-leaning to be moved by the scene in which Katie is referred to a food bank in order to feed her children. You surely just need to be human.
It isn’t a subtle film. We don’t live in subtle times. Political discourse has been watered down to such thin gruel that any nuanced discussion is lost in a gale of sound bites, memes and moral absolutes. Loach has a message, and he’s going to make sure we get it. It’s true that the job centre staff are presented as Vogon-esque automatons, and the one that shows any conscience and compassion is soon chastised. It feels like an over-simplified depiction and one of the few parts that feels little off. It’s a thoroughly dispiriting place in which to scratch a living, as former staff have informed me, particularly as staff numbers were slashed in the wake of the bank crash, just as they were needed more than ever. In no way does it threaten to derail the film, but it must be admitted it adds grist to the mill of its critics.
As heartbreaking and remorseless as it is, I, Daniel Blake shows optimism in the way a reeling community can pull together. Daniel, Katie and her children form a tentative surrogate family, along with the assistance Daniel gets from his comically dodgy younger neighbours. In retrospect this all seems ironically in tune with David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society – a climate of empowering community and individuals. Because only in the Britain we live in now would basic human decency have to be labelled and spun as policy.
It is the humanity in its message and in the remarkably natural performances that make Loach’s film more than a hectoring polemic. Johns and Squires are utterly believable in their roles and never feel like ciphers in the service of the message. Fifty years after Loach first hurtled into the public conscience with Cathy Come Home, he’s still a vital, incendiary presence. I, Daniel Blake is a film of quiet, simmering fury, and bottomless compassion. Very rarely have I been so overwhelmed in the cinema, and it was clear I wasn’t alone. The impact it has had, and the fact it is being so widely discussed, provides hope that change can be made. However, it also makes me wonder who is going to carry on the torch when Loach is gone.