Blazing with righteous ire and brimming with compassion, Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake is both a damning portrait of austerity Britain and a tender tribute to human resilience and fellowship.
The film’s title character has these qualities in spades. The state, alas, does not. Recovering from a heart attack, 59-year-old widowed Newcastle joiner Daniel (played by standup comedian Dave Johns) gets a rude awakening to present realities. The Welfare State, he learns to his cost, no longer provides a safety net. Instead, it is now a minefield laid with traps for the unwary.
The bureaucracy Daniel encounters is maddening. His doctors have signed him off work, but according to the authorities he lacks the disability ‘points’ that will entitle him to benefits. To obtain them, he must somehow negotiate a labyrinthine system seemingly designed to deter claimants rather than help them.
Unsurprisingly, he meets frustration at every turn: kept endlessly on hold to the accompaniment of Vivaldi, forced to answer irrelevant questions by an exasperatingly obtuse ‘healthcare professional’, directed to go online to fill in the relevant forms.
‘We’re digital by default,’ the DWP explains. ‘I’m pencil by default,’ is Daniel’s wry reply. Natural and unforced, Daniel’s humour acts as a defence against the blinkered and unfeeling bureaucrats he encounters – and Johns perfectly embodies his lively wit.
The comedy is a sign of Daniel’s sparky humanity and we soon get another. Still trapped in this Kafkaesque nightmare, he meets a fellow victim in the job centre. Single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) has been uprooted from London with her two young children and transplanted to Newcastle, where housing costs are cheaper.
Bereft of family and friends, lacking any kind of support network, she faces a daily struggle to get by. Befriending her, Daniel offers kindness and practical help. The state, meanwhile, continues its task of grinding down its supplicants.
Ken Loach may have turned 80, but I, Daniel Blake shows he hasn’t lost his fire. Working with regular screenwriter Paul Laverty and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, he infuses his film with passionate indignation. Yet he does so in a surprisingly measured way: even a moment of searing humiliation for Katie in a food bank is filmed with quiet restraint. We, the viewer, supply the anger.
Certificate 15. Runtime 100 mins. Director Ken Loach