Film review by Jason Day of I, Daniel Blake, about a Newcastle based, former carpenter, and his travails through the UK employment benefit system after he suffers a life-changing injury. Starring Dave Johns and directed by Ken Loach.
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Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged widower and a skilled carpenter by trade living in the North East of England. After suffering a serious heart attack at work, he finds himself on temporary disability benefits until his doctor and physiotherapist agree he is fit to work again. The Department for Work and Pensions have a different take on this and, after a disability assessment which Blake answers honestly, he is categorised as able to return to work, despite the threat to his health. Blake finds himself swept up in the labyrinth of officialdom and bureaucracy as he tries to survive. Swept along with him is Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother from London who is moved by her local authority to the North with her two children, finding herself adrift with no support network apart from the kindly Daniel.
Review, by Jason Day
Before I crack on with what I thought about the latest Loach cinematic rant, the first thing to say is a slightly selfish, film critic thing. What an excellent press pack the publicity team at Wild Bunch International Sales produced to accompany it.
For those uninitiated to the joys of PR, this is the blurb, photos and interviews with the cast and crew that tells journalists about how they made it and why they want people to see it (buttering up the critic along the way). A critic can spend ages trying to track them down. It gladdened my heart to see it in the first Google search. And most informative it was too.
I, Daniel Blake was unfortunately not showing at my local multiplex, so I drove across counties to the next one, despite not being a Loach fan in the slightest.
To explain that point, during my time at University studying film, Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) was one of the films we studied as part of the deathly dull ‘Realism and Representation’ class.
Apart from Sally Potter‘s glittering and witty Orlando (1992), the subject was yawn-inducing to say the least. Loach’s film about a teacher who quits his job to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) very nearly finished me. It turned me off his brand of lefty, bleeding-heart, whinge-cinema for good.
Orlando on the other hand was, for me, “the pink, the pearl and the perfection” of film. Cinema that transports me to another time, place and/or dimension, rather than reminds me of the grinding reality of life outside the picture house.
Loach’s economy, ugly, bread-string effort the anathema of what stimulated my filmic senses. But, would I hold my cinema in such esteem without his cinema running alongside it?
So it was with some trepidation I approached his latest film, which has had quite a high-profile launch, with the ‘Old Goat’ of movies giving interviews seemingly here, there and everywhere. Presumably because the storyline has such newsworthy topicality and also the fact that Loach’s name commands respect. (This film has already won the much coveted Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival).
But given that I myself have ‘signed on’ recently, I felt a pull to see this one. I felt part-invested, particularly since the trailer made the Job Centre Daniel visits so teeth-grindingly brusque and officious.
Really, Mr Loach? I thought, have you and your regular screenwriter Paul Laverty been cherry-picking the most awful and miserable aspects of life on benefits from your research up and down the UK, to stuff your script with tear-inducing scenes of desperation and raging against the man and the machine?
There is a definite feel of sleight of hand, of course. But then, how else is a politically minded, Labourite film director to get his point across about the wall of red tape and officialdom one has to navigate when on the dole?
To be fair to old Ken, Daniel is a direct contrast to myself, a simple Job Seeker’s Allowance claim after being made redundant, for a person with transferrable job skills, who is computer literate and has no health issues. Daniel has a deliberately difficult claim to resolve, involving the controversial, ATOS-led Personal Independence Payments for the disabled and chronically ill.
I also live in a totally different part of the country (Warwickshire as opposed to the North East), with a different unemployment area profile, but even I have to protest at the judicious and seductive over-exaggeration from Loach.
The Job Centre I attend is quiet and calm, whatever time of the day I visit (early morning, lunchtime or afternoon). There are no queues (everything is ordered by appointment – one thing that definitely works in the system’s favour) and the staff are genuinely helpful, friendly and professional.
They are non-confrontational and not belligerent or pushy. When I asked for a number to call as the online system did not register my details, the helpline was given to me immediately on a piece of pre-printed paper. I was not referred to a website to get it myself as Daniel is.
When I called the helpline (not during lunchtime hours) the call was answered within 2 minutes. For subsequent calls, I have had to call back due to the line being busy, but again, the call has been picked up fairly quickly. I have not been left waiting for an hour like Daniel during one of his calls (most people would actually hang up and call back, Ken. Use some common sense here!).
The overall feeling I have (apart from the staggeringly maze-like systems and procedures followed by this government department. Loach is certainly bang on target there), is that the people there genuinely want to support me. I won’t comment on their personal reasons for doing that as I have not asked them (something I suspect Loach hasn’t done much of either. The media briefing pack references them only briefly), but they do an awkward job very well.
Daniel does meet a Job Centre worker who goes above and beyond to help him use a computer, but Loach quickly punishes her for this (she is upbraided in front of members of the public and reprimanded, for potentially starting a precedence).
I wonder if Loach has become so cinematically myopic, he is unable to give proper balance and nuance to his films. Perhaps, as the script is based on supposed, actual incidences, it should serve as part of Job Centre staff training?
Certainly, with I, Daniel Blake, any catastrophe that someone on the bread line could possibly encounter and endure (selling off their effects, prostitution) is stacked up in the script’s bullet point list of desperate situations. But I’ve never faced being poor, so perhaps I’m suffering from my own form of short sightedness.
However, despite the above, I am still very glad I spent the time and money viewing this film and getting an appreciation (at long last, perhaps) of Loach’s world of film. Damn it, the man even made me cry (and the rest of the cinema it seemed), during a heart-breaking scene as Katie, half delirious with hunger, casually opens a tin of baked beans and eats them cold, the sauce sloshing down her clothes and onto the floor.
Despite the obvious ‘ramping up’ of negativity, the film is punctuated with moments of winning, working class warmth as Daniel and Katie’s proto-family spend time getting to know each other. And the funny lines are truly hilarious.
Johns, a stand-up comic in his other life, is a fine lead, able to wring out every speck of humour in the writing. Unseen during his first assessment, the ‘health professional’ robotically reads a series of questions completely unrelated to Daniel’s health condition, as if from her own script. “Forget me arse”, he tells her, “That works a dream”.
It sometimes sounds like your damning with faint praise to say an actor is ‘natural’, but Johns’ all too natural, almost light, touch serves the film well. He doesn’t appear to be acting, just being is enough.
Squires can take a bow too as she is up there with him, but more emotionally keyed in to the story, as a young woman on the edge whose hopes and aspirations are pummelled into the earth by the system.
Cast & credits
Director: Ken Loach. 100 mins. BBC/BFI/Les Films du Fleuve/Sixteen Films/Why Not Productions/Wild Bunch. (15)
Producer: Rebecca O’Brien.
Writer: Paul Laverty.
Camera: Robbie Ryan.
Music: George Fenton.
Sets: Fergus Clegg, Linda Wilson.
Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan, Natalie Anne Jamieson, Mark Burns, Colin Coombs, Harriet Ghost.