Dir. Ken Loach
Screenplay. Paul Laverty
It must be difficult for Damian Green MP, the current Work and Pension Secretary, to defend his predecessor’s legacy. No wonder he is so defensive when discussing I, Daniel Blake, dismissing it as a mere “work of fiction that bears no relation to the modern benefits system” and defaming director Ken Loach as being “monstrously unfair to job centre staff”. Not only has Green, as he has openly admitted, clearly not seen the film, but has not been living in the same Britain as those exposed to the cruel joke of what is ironically called the welfare system. Loach and writer Paul Laverty’s latest collaboration portray the consequences of the Coalition’s austerity politics with a sweeping indictment of the privatisation of benefit assessment, social cleansing, wide-spread use of food banks and the devastating effects of benefit sanctions. In bringing these issues to the screen with characteristic humour but unswerving bleakness, I, Daniel Blake is a sharp, humane corrective to the ‘scroungers and shirkers’ narrative promoted to justify austerity Britain.
When recent widower and joiner by trade, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), is diagnosed with a heart condition making him unable to work, he attempts to claim Employment and Support Allowance. However, assessed by a private company on behalf of the DWP, he is ruled fit-to-work and enters unprepared into the Kafkaesque benefits system. He soon discovers the ageist processes of internet application and the disembodied, unaccountable control of the ‘decision-maker’ via elongated telephone calls. In a fateful encounter, Blake meets fraught but resolute single parent of two, Katie (Hayley Squires), a social exile from London who is trying desperately to make Newcastle a ‘home if it’s the last thing [she] does’. The two soon find their lives intertwined as they rely on each other for the social and emotional support so lacking from the state services they’re dependent on. Loach and Laverty are concerned with the dehumanising effects of austerity, where daily precarity and the state’s callous indifference erode meaningful relationships, community-spirit and conscience. Despite Green’s accusations, Laverty portrays how the job-centre bureaucracy strips compassion from the otherwise well-meaning staff, centring around the meek Ann (Kate Rutter). At constant risk are not only the characters physical survival. but more importantly their sense of self-respect and recognition as citizens, not pariahs, of the society.
Johns plays the eponymous Blake with great humour and dignity, though never deigns to being a victim we pity or laugh at. Rather, John makes us empathise with Blake’s bewilderment and frustration with the job centre application and the atomising forces that have changed his community. Calling on his comedic talents, Johns forces us to laugh in step with Blake’s plain-speaking observations (a wonderful scene at a CV-writing workshop exemplifies this). We stand firmly with Blake though concern grows throughout the film whether his damaged heart will, both medically and emotionally, hold out under the growing pressures. Squires’ understated performance is powerful but incredibly difficult to watch, as she deftly shows Katie’s increasing tiredness, emaciation but also implacable strength. Again, despite Blake’s paternal-like presence in her life, she refuses to be a victim to her circumstances. Loach and Laverty give both characters a fragility but determination, of self-worth in their defiance and the acts of kindness they display to each other and those around them. When the social fabric has collapsed, what else is left?
Loach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s un-elaborate, minimalist style doesn’t encroach on the actors’ naturalistic performances. Instead, we feel as if we are observers to the daily experience of the job centre, the food bank, the toil of finding unemployment. There are few embellishments here, with Loach only hinting to the wider forces that divide society (at one point, Blake stands ironically in front of a jewellery store window with the meaningless slogan ‘Love’ emblazoned across the expensive products). This cinematic verity provides a starkness to certain scenes, such as the aforementioned breakdown, that both unexpectedly shock yet never distance or distort our sympathies. Conversely, it is more intimate, it brings us closer. In attempting to bring all the charges against austerity without losing the focus on Blake and Katie, Loach only makes reference to the bedroom tax, zero hours contracts, persecution of the disabled and youth unemployment which come across as hastily-added snatches of dialogue than properly developed subplots.
In true Brechtian fashion, Loach and Laverty are unapologetically didactic when dramatising the Coalition and Conservative government’s legacy of welfare measures. While beginning with the patronising, absurd questions that infantilises Blake, the film ends clearly with a declaration of his humanity. As with Blake’s act of protest in the film, I, Daniel Blake is an assertion of person-hood, a cry against the state forces that are denigrating thousands of people and a call to recognise their right to dignity. This film is a necessary portrait of those bearing the brunt of an economic ideology and political policy that provides only further impoverishment, alienation and despair. As with his previous films, Cathy Come Home and Kes, Loach provides and leaves us with a quiet anger, a moral outrage that demands our active participation in the forgotten (though frankly speaking discarded) pursuit of social justice. I, Daniel Blake is, indeed, a work of fiction. If only it were so fictional and so far from those current realities the film unfalteringly depicts.