“I, Daniel Blake” (2016)
Running Time: 100 minutes
Directed by: Ken Loach
Featuring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, and Briana Shann
Daniel: “Well I’m pencil by default.”
“I, Daniel Blake” (2016) was one of the crowning achievements in cinema last year and must stand as the best film to come out of the UK at the very least for quite some time, at least since the last great Ken Loach film. At 80 years of age and having had such success with film it is incredible to think that he could create something so refreshing, relevant and scary as “I, Daniel Blake”. This has to stand as Loachs best film behind my personal favorite and winner of the Palme d’Or, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006).
Daniel Blake (of the title) is a 59-year-old joiner living in Newcastle, England. Daniel has had a heart attack at work. His recovery is incomplete and his cardiologist is concerned that Daniel’s heart might begin to beat abnormally, putting him at risk of developing a life-threatening arrhythmia. She tells him that he is not ready to go back to work.
Daniel applies for the sickness benefit called ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ which he receives at first, but when an eligibility test is carried out, he is deemed to be able to work. The supervisor at the job centre says Daniel’s only option is to claim Jobseekers Allowance. As a condition of receiving Jobseekers Allowance, he must actively look for work. Daniel launches a legal appeal against being found fit for work but he finds it difficult because he is not computer literate.
Daniel gets to know single mother Katie and her two children, Dylan and Daisy, who have left a homeless persons’ hostel in London and, with no other affordable accommodation being available in the capital, have moved to Daniel’s home town, a place unfamiliar to Katie and her children. On her first visit to the Job Centre Katie was “sanctioned” — her benefits were stopped because she briefly got lost on the way there — and she can no longer feed all her family nor heat their flat.
Yes this is a drama but it moves along at such a brisk pace and with such unrelenting events that to me it plays out like a taught thriller and the wonder of what is going to happen next keeps you glued to the screen – it is hard to look away. You feel such closeness to all the characters even with their flaws, you are on board from the start.
It would be easy to say to say that the issues concerning Daniel and Kate are limited to one town, in one city in one country in one hemisphere of the world, but that is not the world we live in. It has become routine for families to struggle to make rent, make mortgage payments, feed their family or even on a basic level find somewhere to live. While “I Daniel Blake” gives us a first hand experience of what it is like to have to navigate ones way through the social welfare system with all the inherent bureaucracy and dogmatic approach that government departments make ‘normal’ people deal with, this film does not have Daniel as a hero but as a real person and makes us witness his outcome whether we are ready for it or not.
There is a tendency to simplify a film like this and to say that this is a depressing and gloomy view of the world, and of course it is, but it is also a deep comment on what has been happening for years to the dispossessed and marginalised people in society, that is the non-white, handicapped and any other segment of society without a voice to be heard. Now in “I, Daniel Blake” it is the white and what would have been the middle class – except now they too have been robbed of their voice and stake in society – a group that is growing thanks to many legislative and corporate decisions made unilaterally around the world. It’s no wonder we have Trump and Brexit.
Aside from being a drama there is a real sense of dread that exists within the narrative that almost gives a thriller bent to the film and that is the sword of Damocles that hangs over Daniel – his heart condition that is exacerbated by the dogmatic approach to him by the institutionalised welfare system that means he must find work to survive – this causes its own unique stresses.
If you missed this film at the theatres this is definitely one to add to any home collection and like many of Loach’s films gets better on a re-watch. In fact the film is so well constructed and edited there is no reason that this should not be considered an immediate classic. Many of the filmmakers coming out of this new millennium could learn a lesson from a film so well constructed around one central conceit.