I’ve been unemployed twice in my life. Those periods were relatively short and I was sort of the system’s dream applicant. I was young, knew how to work a computer and I was able to relocate for a job; the second time I had been more or less promised a future at the newspaper where I had been kicked out due to certain labor regulations. The promise was eventually fulfilled. I realize how fortunate I have been.
Daniel Blake is the opposite of me, and perhaps he embodies a fear that we may all have, that one day we’ll be considered useless and become trapped in a system we are unable to beat. The film seemed relevant enough to the Cannes festival jury that Ken Loach was awarded the second Palme d’Or of his life, after The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).
59-year-old Newcastle joiner Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) finds himself in a dilemma. He recently suffered a heart attack and a physician has told him not to go back to work. However, the Department for Work and Pensions makes a work capability assessment and considers him fit. Daniel can’t believe what he’s hearing, especially since his doctor was never consulted, and applies for an appeal. A computer keeps standing in his way though. Daniel has never learned how to go online; not only does he need to fill out forms on the computer for his appeal, but he also needs to keep applying for jobs until that appeal has worked its way through the system. At the same time, Daniel gets to know Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who’s just moved to Newcastle, and he offers her help…
Perfecting a formula
There’s really nothing new here that we haven’t seen in many other films by Ken Loach. Only this time, he’s sort of perfected his formula of social criticism from the left. The director may be conservative in his ways (I don’t mean politically); many of his films explore labor issues in the past or the historical relationship between the Irish and the British.
But some of them take place in the present and I, Daniel Blake is a very moving and engaging example of when Loach is at his best, finding something relevant to say about British society right now. His criticism of how the welfare system works, failing people like Daniel Blake, hit the right spot and had Tories up in arms, including former Work and Pensions Secretary and Conservative Leader Iain Duncan Smith who called the movie unfair. Obviously Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn took the opportunity to use the film as a weapon against Prime Minister Theresa May, whose party had cut benefits in the past. What the film really accomplishes is showing how easily someone can fall victim to a system that has no place for people like Daniel – men and women who are not sick enough to be confined to a bed, but still too sick to work. The filmmakers say their script (by long-time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty) was informed by people working for the Department of Work and Pensions and the union. It certainly has a ring of truth.
The portrait of Daniel’s father-daughter relationship with Katie is equally compelling, and there are several heartbreaking moments, especially that scene at the food bank where it’s hard to fully imagine the humiliation of what Katie’s going through. Johns and Squires offer superior performances in the leads.
One of Loach’s very best films, I, Daniel Blake is heartwarming, but also has a rebellious streak. Made in Hollywood, that final scene would have been turned into something way over the top. Here, it’s a quietly powerful way to end things.
I, Daniel Blake 2016-Britain-France-Belgium. 100 min. Color. Produced by Rebecca O’Brien. Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay: Paul Laverty. Cast: Dave Johns (Daniel Blake), Hayley Squires (Katie Morgan), Kate Rutter (Ann), Kema Sikazwe, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann.
BAFTA: Best British Film. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “I’d always wanted to do something in my home town which is Nuneaton in the middle of the Midlands, and so Paul [Laverty, the script writer] and I went and met people there. I’m a little involved with a charity called Doorway, which is run by a friend, Carol Gallagher. She introduced Paul and me to a whole range of people who were unable to find work for various reasons – not enough jobs being the obvious one. Some were working for agencies on insecure wages and had nowhere to live. One was a very nice young lad who took us to his room in a shared house helped by ‘Doorway’ and the room was Dickensian. There was a mattress on the floor, a fridge but pretty well nothing else.” (Loach, Scottish Left Review)