Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy
Ken Loach has long been a fearsome and tireless campaigner for political change, giving a voice to those in society who might otherwise be overlooked, through films which merge drama and reality. When ‘I, Daniel Blake’ won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, Loach took the opportunity to thank the Academy for endorsing the truth of the film, “which hundreds and thousands of people in this country know, that the most vulnerable and poorest are treated by the Government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful”. In my opinion, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the best kind of cinema, one that entertains but that could also enact social change.
Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty (The Wind That Shakes The Barley, My Name Is Joe), ‘I, Daniel Blake’ focuses on the life of 59 year old Daniel. Daniel is a carpenter, living in Newcastle, who has recently had a series of heart problems that mean his doctors have ordered him to stay off work. Having worked in manual labour his whole life, Daniel find the transition difficult and finds himself having to rely on help from the State to see him through. The film follows Daniel in his battle to negotiate the welfare system and keep himself going.
Along his journey he meets up with Katie (Hayley Squires) a single mother to two children, who is forced to move out of London when the benefit caps leave her unable to afford to live anywhere other than a one bedroom, homeless hostel. Wanting some space and freedom for her family (with her son displaying some worrying behaviours) she has taken the plunge and moved away from everything she knows to give her son and daughter a better quality of life. Now, desperate to be able to go back to college, Katie tries to keep up appearances for her children as her life slowly unravels.
Both Daniel and Katie find themselves at the mercy of a benefits system which seeks to meet arbitrary sanctions targets, driving them both beyond poverty and desperation and into very dark territory. They form a kind of surrogate family and help support each other in their darkest times. The film looks at the benefit system through the lens of a country which has been brain-washed by a media intent on propagating the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor, and is unflinching in its portrayal of a system set up solely around numbers, and one which is absent of humanity.
As one of those hundreds and thousands of people who has seen the cruelty of the benefits system, I can also testify to Loach’s truth here. I have seen first-hand the arbitrary decisions that are made in order to fulfill an imaginary quota of “undeserving” poor, which in turn leads to callous abandonment of those in our society who are the most vulnerable. The tale told here is not one that has been exaggerated for dramatic purposes; this really is happening every day.
However, if politics isn’t your thing, there is still plenty to take away from this film. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a masterful piece of film-making, as you would expect from someone of Loach’s standing. Despite the subject matter, it never lectures, allowing the viewer to be caught up in the story at hand. It manages to balance warmth, humour and hope against the bleakest of backdrops and makes you truly care about Daniel, Katie and all those who have found themselves either trapped in, or cast out, by the system. A rare mix of the passionate and human, the gut-wrenching and the comedic, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is an absolute must see and one of the most important films of recent years.