Director Ken Loach
Starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan
Released 21st October 2016
It’s the people’s film. The hashtag is #WeAreAllDanielBlake, the London premiere was billed as “the people’s premiere” and there have been hundreds of free preview screenings around the country. And, once I, Daniel Blake has been released, distributor EOne will make DVDs available for community screenings. Ken Loach’s searing indictment of the benefits system is gathering a head of steam.
It could happen to anybody. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) has had a serious heart attack. Both his GP and the hospital are adamant he’s not fit for work, but the DWP assessment thinks otherwise. So, even though he can’t take a job if he’s offered one, he’s still forced to look. He’s stuck. At the same time, he befriends hard up single mum Katie (Hayley Squires), who’s just moved up to Newcastle from London and they support each other as they both struggle to navigate their way around the system.
The complexities and consequences of the benefits system are in the full glare of Loach’s spotlight. The lengths Katie goes to in an effort to earn money to make sure her daughter’s shoes don’t fall apart. Daniel’s stumbling efforts to fill in an online form: in his own words, he’s “pencil by default” so he commits the cardinal sin of a handwritten CV. Some of it is truly distressing. Katie’s visit to the food bank ends with her opening a can of baked beans there and then, eating the contents because she’s so hungry. And, if that sounds over the top, screenwriter Paul Laverty based the scene on a true story. There are many more like that.
But in case that all sounds one-sided, Loach gives us a balanced story, one that’s told in sorrow and anger. This isn’t just a system that makes it hard for unemployed people to survive: in its way, it’s just as demeaning for the staff at the Jobcentre. They come across as robotic or unfeeling, or both, but that’s a result of what they have to do at work. For some, it’s a defense mechanism, for others they’re just trying to hold on to their jobs. Only one of them shows a spark of humanity and she gets her ear bent by her manager – and not for the first time. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, it’s a soul-destroying experience and, again, it’s all based on reality. The film’s credits acknowledge help from DWP staff, although none of them can be named.
I, Daniel Blake doesn’t beat you around the head with its message. It doesn’t need to because it’s there for you to see. Made in Loach’s customary semi-documentary style, it also makes great use of local people, from the hen party who watch Daniel spray paint his protest on the Jobcentre, to the staff in the food bank. It’s a genuine food bank, they all work there and their understanding, practical approach is a complete contrast to the staff at the Jobcentre. It’s film made with passion and compassion and it’s not an easy watch. It’ll probably make you angry. So it should.
I, Daniel Blake is released in cinemas on Friday, 21 October and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 20 October.