With a career spanning over 5 decades, Ken Loach is widely known for his ability to tackle social issues with unapologetic candidness; his latest feature ‘I, Daniel Blake’, a stark and at times harrowing depiction of one man’s attempt to battle through a punitive and broken welfare system is no different.
From the outset this Palme d’Or winning film firmly establishes the helplessness of our protagonist Daniel Blake, played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns. In the wake of a near fatal heart attack Blake is ordered to indefinitely cease working to prevent further injury and advised to sign on for social welfare years of graft as a skilled carpenter there is understandably a sense of reluctance, however the necessity of money eventually makes his trip to the dole office an unavoidable one.
The script was penned by Paul Laverty, having previously worked with Loach on his first Palme d’Or winning film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ depicting the Irish War of Independence. Laverty possesses a remarkable ability to find humour in otherwise distressing situations. A catch-22 situation presents itself as Daniel Blake learns he is ineligible for social welfare and, against quantitative evidence from medical professionals, deemed fit to work. Appeal against the decision and receive no benefits at all, or spend his days looking for work he cannot take in order to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance. After spending decades paying into a supposed safety net system it’s farcical to discover that he does not qualify for benefits. The ludicrous nature of the circumstances is only exacerbated by the emotionless government officials who seem more interested in saving money than granting it to those entitled.
The issue of humanity, or lack thereof, is prominent throughout the film. This is illustrated by the distinct contrast between the almost robotic job centre employees, and Blake’s fellow victims of this red tape merry-go-round. His life becomes entangled with one such victim, Katie (Hayley Squires), after she is relocated almost 300 miles to Newcastle due to an alleged lack of social housing in her previous home, London. Their encounter is an unforgettable one as Katie learns she will be denied her benefits as a result of arriving late to the appointment. She is then further punished after explaining she accidentally took the wrong bus in an alien city by being heartlessly removed by security, and Blake, pointing out the lunacy of unfolding events, meets the same fate. The silver lining to this otherwise disheartening scene is the almost father-daughter relationship that forms.
As the pair continue to jump through their respective administrative hoops they find solace in the company of one another. Blake, in using his carpentry skills to improve the condition of Katie’s new home and Katie in helping Blake navigate a ‘digital by default’ paperless system. Additionally, her two children receive support from a long awaited father figure as their mother plunges deeper into distress over monetary troubles without the support network of her friends and family. The crescendo of emotions reaches breaking point as she is forced to turn to a food bank in order to survive. A heart wrenching scene of pure desperation follows as the starving Katie cowers in the corner of the room devouring a tin of cold baked beans. ‘Look at the state of me’ she says to Blake, this is what she has been driven to.
I, Daniel Blake takes many dramatic twists and turns before its inevitable climax. Loach, not one for subtlety, puts the audience through an array of emotion in what could be described as an exposé into a broken system supposed to offer aid, not frustration and suffering. Driven out of assumed retirement to create perhaps his magnum opus, this insightful representation of real struggles is one not to be missed.