I, Daniel Blake begins with the 59-year-old carpenter titular character, portrayed by comedian Dave Johns, applying for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance), and being asked a succession of – irrelevant, to him – questions when he just wants to discuss the heart attack that’s led to his doctor signing him off from work until he recovers, such as “Can you walk 50 yards?”, “Can you raise your arms and reach something from your top pocket?”, then another about his fingers, moving onto intimate details about his bowel movements, leading Daniel to retort: “Now, please, can we talk aboot me heart, forget aboot me arse, that works a dream.”
A testament to the genius of director Ken Loach is that – following the usual distributor logos, which mostly played out in silence, and led me to wonder if the sound was working – you’re drawn into this scene with the screen remaining entirely black, save for some perfunctory opening credits. And while you couldn’t actually see anything, there were a number of laughs in this opening scene which grabbed the audience from the off.
However, despite the title, it’s not just about Daniel, but also about Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother of two from London, who has spent the last two years in homeless shelters and has now been relocated to a rundown flat in Tyneside. Like anyone in this situation, it’s going to take a while to get your bearings, so when she gets a bus going the wrong way to the Jobcentre, only to arrive late and not being allowed to sign on with no-one listening to her, a chance encounter with Daniel, who stands up for her, speaks a huge amount of common sense, but both their protestations lead them to being thrown out with nothing gained. This is what forms an unlikely friendship in a film which highlights just how disconnected we’ve come from reality where we’ve lost touch with even just talking to some of our neighbours, as shown in a brief scene where Daniel makes his voice heard about a man letting his dog foul the grass outside his apartment, which results in a reply containing a volley of abuse and strong language.
When this film was shown on BBC News’ Film Review with Mark Kermode, after Katie’s told to leave the Jobcentre and Daniel steps in, news anchor Gavin Esler said: “HE’S the decision-maker!” Hence, I can spot a new movie franchise – The Decision-Maker! Coming to an IMAX screen near you from Christmas 2017. (Cue shot of a baddie cowering, begging not to be executed). Daniel: “Appeal dismissed!” (BANG!)
(Note: This picture is taken by me with my phone – it’s not representative of the disc’s quality)
With Daniel getting beaten down by the system – for example in having to claim JSA (Jobseekers Allowance) while appealing against the ESA decision, leading to having to apply for jobs when his doctor has told him he’s not allowed to work, it brings together a great number of challenges thrown at Daniel that one might come across, from making sense of the jargon used without explanation, through having to make an online benefit application when he’s never used a computer before, leading to a number of problems, such as when he books an hour in the library, and is told to “run his mouse up the screen”, leading to him physically moving the mouse onto the screen; and also when the machine freezes, and he replies, “Well, how do you defrost it?”
Like any organisation, there are some people who are caring, and some who are far from it, and this film shows both extremes. There were a few little things that didn’t quite sit right, such as when he has to prove his advisor that he’s been looking for work and is told that a list of the jobs on their own is not proof enough – since he wasn’t told he had to obtain a receipt every time he handed his CV to a potential employer. I had to apply for JSA a few years ago, and a list of the jobs I’d applied for was fine – maybe some of those situations have changed since, but despite that, there’s a lot that will resonate with a lot of people. I’ve seen Dave Johns say in a couple of interviews that we could all be three paycheques away from poverty if our fortunes turn, so as the film speaks to everyone, and since we could all become Daniel Blake, everyone should see it.
There’s also a scene in a foodbank, which was particularly harrowing when I expected it to go one way, and it went another. Foodbanks are demeaning enough in that society has broken down to the point where they are required in the modern age, but at the point where a key moment happens (which I won’t divulge here), the performance Hayley Squires just struck me down and brought tears to my eyes. Credit also goes to the way Ken Loach works, in that, the content of this particular moment was only divulged to Ms Squires and a few members of the crew, so that allows everyone else to react naturally around her and the situation, and THAT is what makes a compelling scene.
Of course, it’s not just the Tories that are to blame, but a succession of governments where the politicians care more about themselves than the people they represent. Look at Tony Blair, for example. After 18 years of Tory rule, he took over with D:Ream’s No.1 song, promising “Things Can Only Get Better”. And they did. For him. After ten years in office, he had seven houses, more money than God (even though he doesn’t ‘do’ God), and after helping George W Bush to blow up tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq, he’s now Middle East Peace Envoy(!) Even Tom Cruise would dismiss that as a plot point for Jack Reacher 3.
Go to page 2 for more thoughts on the film, plus the presentation, extras and interviews on Channel 4 News and at the Locarno International Film Festival.
“Benefit system let down the ordinary people” – The Upcoming
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.