Film Review: I, Daniel Blake

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the latest of Ken Loach’s political, socially critical films with socialist themes, having previously explored issues such as poverty, working rights and homelessness. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a scathing comment on Britain’s benefits system, following one man’s battle with the state. Both personal and political, this is a heart wrenching and furious film, shining a light on what is a bleak reality for many Britons.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is 59 and has been unable to return to his job in construction since he suffered a heart attack. The film opens with Daniel answering questions from a ‘Healthcare Professional’ to ascertain whether he is eligible for Employment and Support Allowance. Despite having been told by his doctor he isn’t ready to return to work, he only scores 12 points on the test, which requires 15 to pass, and is refused support. This is obviously wrong, but the process to appeal is so complicated that it seems Daniel would be unlikely to ever succeed. It’s shocking that the state can simply let this happen rather than immediately try to rectify the situation. This is meant to be a department that helps people, yet the lack of care is alarming.

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At times, Loach captures Daniel’s experience with the job centre employees with a darkly humorous lens, mocking the obvious contradictions in his situation, the centre’s often uncompassionate way of dealing with the public, unhelpful formalities, and the ridiculous process of having to pursue jobs that he’s unable to take in order to receive Jobseekers Allowance. This sharp humour runs throughout the film, lightening the difficulty of the topic. There’s the sense that you have to laugh at how terrible it is; how the broken the system is, treating people like numbers rather than individuals; and just how difficult the state seems to make it for people to sign on, especially those unfamiliar with computers, potentially leaving out the older generation like Daniel.

At its core, this is a film of both extreme desperation and anger at ‘broken Britain.’ Daniel meets and forms a friendship with young mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children, Daisy and Dylan, who have finally been given housing after being left by the state to live in a hostel for two years after being kicked out of her flat. This meant moving hundreds of miles away from her family in London to Newcastle, an acute critique on the housing crisis in the capital. Daniel meets Katie at the job centre, where she was also hoping to sign on, but has been sanctioned for being late and will no longer receive the support, despite being new to the city and having little more than twelve quid left. Again, the lack of empathy from the centre’s workers is shocking.

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After Daniel helps do up their flat, Katie places three plates of dinner on the table, insisting he eat the last one, as she’s not hungry and will just have an apple. “You said that yesterday,” Daisy remarks. Later in the film at a food bank, Katie, completely starving and close to fainting, goes into a corner and rips open a can of beans, eating them straight from the tin. This image of such desperation is utterly shocking. It is infuriating that the government can let someone be in Katie’s situation: so starving that she is forced to humiliate herself, too poor to put money in the electricity metre, and using bubble wrap to line the windows instead of turning on the central heating. Another heartbreaking scene is when Daisy crawls into bed with her, freezing, and tells her how the other girls at school made fun of her because her shoes fell apart. Katie says she’ll buy new ones, and cries silently in the darkness, realising she’ll have to turn to desperate measures to raise the money.

You will leave this film completely outraged and devastated. Outraged at how the state can treat people so poorly, how even those who are supposed to help seem so uncompassionate – bar one woman who tries to help Daniel at the centre, but is reprimanded for doing so – and how the benefits system dehumanises people. It is completely devastating to know there are people like Daniel and Katie out there, struggling and jumping through hoops to get support, yet never receiving the help they so badly need. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows how even the most positive and determined people, like Daniel, can be worn down by the system – “When you lose your self-respect you’re done for,” he says, before taking to the streets outside to spray paint in furious protest in an iconic, triumphantly rebellious scene. Passers by cheer in support, and this is just the kind of awareness and outrage we should be directing at the benefits system, which is severely problematic. In a time where a third of people in Britain have experienced poverty in recent years, we need change now.

Watch the trailer for ‘I, Daniel Blake’ below:

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is playing at Picturehouse Cinemas.