Moving, tragic and brutally direct, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a scathing portrait of Britain’s benefits system.
The Measure Of A Manby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Ken Loach is celebrated for his body of socially committed work and I, Daniel Blake is a moving, searingly accurate portrait of the state of Britain in 2016, where ailing carpenter Daniel Blake (imaginative casting of Geordie comedian Dave Johns, who is superb in the role) is caught in the labyrinthine, impersonal welfare benefits nightmare created by the Conservative government. The screenplay was based on research by director Ken Loach’s collaborator Paul Laverty, but it could easily be a documentary, its characters seem so realistic and it’s so close to the shameful truth.
Having nearly died from a heart attack, 59-year-old Blake is told not to work by his doctor and consultant, but he is classified as fit to work and thus not eligible to claim Employment and Support Allowance by the box-ticking self-styled ‘health professional’ of the NHS’s American sub-contractor who administers the scheme. The film starts with him replying to her robotic, inappropriate questions with exasperated common sense even though he has already answered them in a 52-page form. The only way he can continue to claim benefits is to register for Jobseekers Allowance, even though he has been told not to work, while he waits to appeal his rejection with “the decision maker”, whoever – or whatever – that may be.
At the Job Centre, like a Good Samaritan he defends single mother of two Katie (down-to-earth and hard-working Hayley Squires), who got lost on her way to her appointment to sign on, because she had been relocated by the council from London to Newcastle, hundreds of miles from her family and her children’s schools, because the housing is cheaper. Because of this violation of the approved impersonal politically correct Job Centre-speak, security are called and they both get thrown out. As they subsequently get to know each other, their mutual kindness bonds them into a little family with widowed, childless Blake as a surrogate grandfather.
But good, honest people don’t thrive under the catch-22s of Britain’s current welfare system. Blake is a relic of a previous age where skilled men knew all kinds of practical skills. But he has never been near a computer, doesn’t have a smartphone – and in the current benefits system, everything has to be done online. He’s forced by a patronising interviewer to attend a CV workshop, another one-size-fits-all box-ticking exercise that only proves that there are not enough jobs available. He’s told his handwritten CV is not good enough. He’s too honest to play the system, even though a sympathetic job centre work tells him what he needs to do. Both he and Katie are ‘sanctioned’ for supposed misdemeanours and their benefits stopped. Both face destitution. With no money, the only recourse is a food bank, where Katie, who has been starving herself so that her children can eat, has a humiliating breakdown. So short of money that she’s reduced to shoplifting sanitary towels, in desperation to provide for her children she becomes an ‘escort’, despite Blake’s attempts to stop her. “Don’t show me any more love,” she says in despair.
Loach’s film pulls no punches. It’s direct, outspoken and unsparing in its criticism of a callous system that seems designed to make it so difficult for genuine welfare claimants to claim that they give up and make the statistics look better. As Blake says, “It’s a monumental farce. I’m a sick man looking for nonexistent jobs. It’s meant to humiliate me, grind me down.” Though he’s appealing his rejection for Employment and Support Allowance, he’s given no date for his appeal and there’s no time limit on when that could be. “When you lose your self-respect, you are done for,” he says, and he takes drastic action to remind the state that he’s a human being. A crowd gathers to watch and gives him enthusiastic and vocal support – “They should arrest the people that came up with sanctions, that Iain Douglas what’s his name”. But it means trouble for him now with the police.
Loach is brutally direct, the issues are presented as black and white, the tragic ending seems inevitable and the reasons behind it are explicitly articulated. But without any doubt I, Daniel Blake is a deeply moving and, sadly, much-needed reminder of everything that’s wrong with Britain’s benefits system and a man’s right – and defence of his fight – to be treated as a human being by the state that has devised it.
I, Daniel Blake premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palme d’Or and is released on 21 October 2016 in the UK.