Back in 2006, Ken Loach won his first Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for the Irish war drama, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Ten years on, the octogenarian shows no signs of taking it easy as he is back with his best work since 2002’s Sweet Sixteen, which has earned him the award for the second time. From Cathy Come Home to this: I, Daniel Blake, Loach has proven he is a master of the social drama and once again, has captured the spirit of our age, on screen for all to see, warts and all. This, is his masterpiece.
Dave Johns is our eponymous hero, a 59-year-old widower carpenter and handyman who, following a near fatal heart attack has been forced onto employment and support allowance. During his assessment with a “healthcare professional”, Daniel must answer a series of inane and ridiculous questions that in no way whatsoever determine his eligibility to work. Nonetheless, a frequent unseen antagonist and servant of the system, dubbed “the decision-maker” rules that poor Daniel is “fit for work” despite a qualified GP’s medical opinion that undertaking any employment could endanger his life. Because he scored a mere 12 points on his work eligibility questionnaire (he needed 15), Daniel must now attempt to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) in which he’ll have to spend 35 hours’ a week looking jobs that don’t exist, that he is medically unfit to apply for and take. And, what’s more; he needs to prove it. As someone who spent a depressing 18-month stint on JSA, failed by a system that doesn’t care, I felt myself becoming angrier and angrier I watched as Daniel sink deeper and deeper into this ocean of feverish, nightmarish bureaucratic absurdity.
Another fly caught in this web of red tape is single mother Katie, a Londoner forced to move 300 miles to Newcastle because there is no affordable social housing for her and her two young children. Katie is played by newcomer Hayley Squires who gives the performance of her life. The two form an unlikely alliance and become friends.
This is one of the most prominent themes of the film and an important one because it shines an ever so dim light of hope against the dark forces of the civil service. When this faceless system of hate fails Daniel and Katie, they are there for each other, and so are others: a kindly job centre advisor – in the midst of some truly despicable ones – and the streetwise young entrepreneur China. The latter more equipped to prosper in a world that is “digital by default”, to which Daniel is “pencil by default”.
It’s an important and heart-warming message, and in my experience, a true one. Those with simply nothing, have the most to give.
The detail is incredible, and Paul Laverty’s script which was constructed from painstaking research and interviews with real-life people like Daniel and Katie, strikes a powerful chord and resonates with its audience. In particular, the food-bank scene which I assure you is one of the most gut-wrenching and emotional images caught on screen. It is wonderfully and carefully shot, not too intrusive, not too distant, just judged and executed perfectly by DoP Robbie Ryan and the scene’s principal players.
I, Daniel Blake is unflinching, unapologetic and merciless. It’s also funny, perceptive, heart-aching, yet uplifting. Honestly, it’s uplifting because there is a message and hope of goodness at the heart of this bleak story of Northern social realism, and regardless of your social standing or walk of life, anyone with a shred of humanity will take something from this. If you don’t, you need to ask yourself some serious questions.