I, Daniel Blake is a profound and urgent piece of cinema. Expertly directed by Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Sweet Sixteen), it is a deeply affecting call to action, and a must-see film.
Daniel Blake (Dave Jones) is a 59-year-old carpenter seeking Welfare Support from the state after suffering a major heart attack. Despite being advised by his doctor that he is medically unfit to work, Daniel is told otherwise by an arbitrary government box-ticking assessment. As a result, in order to receive any benefits he must spend 35 hours a week applying for jobs that don’t exist and that he cannot take anyway; it’s a ‘monumental farce’.
The film follows Daniel’s battle with a government that dehumanizes its most vulnerable, reducing decent people to mere numbers in a system. The widower soon realizes the extent of the cold bureaucratic inefficiency that is Britain’s benefit system and how it is designed to break the spirits of those in need through a most undignified process. Determined to appeal the state’s verdict on his eligibility status, Daniel refuses to let the system break him, telling one employee that ‘When you lose your self respect, you’re done for’. While waiting for an anonymous ‘decision maker’ to decide his fate, Daniel sells his possessions and sits freezing in his apartment.
Loach masterfully captures this flagrant injustice and the frustrations of ordinary working-class people struggling to get ahead. With moments of sharp understated wit throughout, Loach is able to bring to light the people behind the heartbreak, and showcase the incredible resilience of the human spirit.
In the Job Centre, Daniel sees young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires) being threatened with a sanction for arriving minutes late for her appointment, having gotten lost on the way. Angered by the degrading process and the treatment of Katie, Daniel shouts at the staff member to assist her and to ‘do the job the tax payer pays’ her for. An unlikely friendship evolves, as Daniel and Katie, along with her two children, attempt to navigate the demoralizing process of claiming welfare benefits together. Daniel helps Katie by employing his carpentry skills around her grungy apartment and teaching her kids how to make their rooms warmer by placing bubble wrap on the windows. The two offer each other support in more ways than one; respect, dignity and kindness during times of severe hardship. In the film’s most painful and poignant scene, Daniel offers emotional support to Katie when she breaks down at a food bank, having gone without eating for days so that she could feed her children. Between scenes of intense sadness, Loach captures a warmth and compassion present in the social bonds formed within I, Daniel Blake. This warmth is in stark contrast with a system that is ‘consciously cruel’, as Loach suitably describes.
Dave Johns and Hayley Squires have been impeccably cast in I, Daniel Blake; their raw and often harrowing performances are what make this film so profoundly shattering. Jones and Squires give themselves wholly to their roles and the authentic friendship that forms between them is heart-warming and hopeful.
Winning the Palme D’or earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake is a personal and political masterpiece. Whilst the sadness in this film is genuine, the humanity is moving. The displays of unity and kindness from strangers, neighbours and friends colour the film with a sense hope. Loach has created a film that will resonate with the masses beyond the confines of the screen and undoubtedly create a dialogue. Raw, tender and powerful, I, Daniel Blake is a must see.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10