I, Daniel Blake (2016) – Movie Review
I, Daniel Blake
Directed by: Ken Loach
Written by: Paul Laverty
Starring: Dave Johns & Hayley Squires
Music: George Fenton
Release Date: October 21st 2016
There’s one prevailing attitude towards films (or art in general) by an increasingly vocal group of movie-goers to “Leave politics out of movies”. It’s a sentiment that sounds reasonable at face-value, as most audience members want to enjoy a film as a form of escapism as opposed seeing films as a political exposé that reflects their lives. However, this avoids the often-forgotten fact that movies are made by human beings with their own set of values and opinions on the world around them and, no matter how subtle or how much they try to hide them, their politics will be reflected in the art they create. It’s just a fact of art. Even art that actively tries to be apolitical is inherently political because it is attempting to REJECT politics.
Though the only people who say “Leave politics out of my entertainment” (or words to that effect) are the ones who are having their own politics and ideals challenged or refuted. Instead, to be more accurate, the detractors should be saying “Leave politics I disagree with out of my entertainment”. But I digress.
And it’s here we find ‘I, Daniel Blake‘ which is a direct response to the politics that have formed in the United Kingdom in recent years; Conservative Austerity. In response to the recent Recession, the Conservative Government have implemented enormous cuts to the country’s welfare and public services that are usually in place to protect the most vulnerable citizens. Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty are openly Left-Wing on the political spectrum and that outlook informs their art which challenges the dehumanising result of recent Conservative Policies to create possibly the most affecting British Drama of the 21st Century so far.
Daniel Blake (Johns) is a widowed carpenter living in Newcastle who has recently suffered a major heart attack. While medical professionals have recommended that he not return to work so soon after the incident, the Department of Work and Pensions deem Daniel “fit for work” and will stop giving him financial benefits unless he applies for jobs that he is physically unable to do. At the same time, he meets single mother Katie (Squires) and her two children who have recently moved to Newcastle who is finding it difficult to support her family in these hard times.
‘I, Daniel Blake‘ can be described as a kitchen sink drama portraying a side of U.K. culture that is often ignored by mainstream media and the few times it is mentioned it’s often demonised. This is not a movie to watch for escapism, or a fun time but rather it’s existence is to tell these every day stories and to highlight real hardships that are taking place in what is supposed to be a 1st world country. Everything about the film screams abject realism from its dull domestic environments, the typically poor Newcastle weather and even the performances from all the cast members are in effort to ground the film. In particular, the cinematography comes across as lackadaisical to almost give the impression of a hidden-camera documentary, or maybe more accurately a “benefit porn” programme that Channel 5 would show to further discredit those living on the poverty line.
The theme of community is what shines through ‘I, Daniel Blake‘ because regardless of the hardships that the characters go through, there is some semblance of a support network for them. Daniel Blake has neighbours who he’s on good terms with, when he asks people at the Job Centre if Katie can skip ahead of them in the queue in order to make her scheduled appointment they don’t hesitate to help and when Katie is at her lowest point at a food bank (in what is possibly the must gut-wrenching scene of any film in 2016) the volunteers offer her a shoulder to cry on. These people ultimately cannot help their financial situation or even provide long-term professional support but it’s all they’ve got.
Because they’ve tried to play by the rules of the system in place thanks to Conservative Austerity. Daniel’s neighbours tried to get honest work in a warehouse but on his zero-hours contract it costs more to commute to work then he actually earns that day. Daniel attempts to find work, but it’s a genuine health-risk for him to take a job he’s offered and Katie is attempting to escape an abusive partner but she’s sidelined by the system that’s supposed to protect her and her children. When Katie and her kids move into their accommodation (that clearly isn’t fit for human habitation but Conservatives continually vote-down legislation to make properties this way) Daniel shows them how to heat rooms without electricity and does easy D.I.Y. repair jobs.
The system that’s supposed to look after these people has let them down. And, if Ken Loach is to be believed, it could be deliberate.
After a particularly frustrating appointment with the Job Centre, Daniel accuses the Department of Work and Pensions of trying to deter him from claiming benefits by making the process as dehumanising as possible and there’s some credence to this with him having to answer redundant questions, remain on hold on the phone for almost an hour so he can talk to a human being (a call that typically costs 55p per-minute even when you’re on hold…because of course it does) and being sanctioned for the smallest indiscretion with no concept of nuance or basic human judgement. Ken Loach’s depiction of the DWP is absolutely scathing and while the anger is well placed, an entirely one-sided approach isn’t always the best one. The film even depicts the staff members who work at the Job Centre in a bad light which, while understandable, can be seen as another form of demonization for the grunt-workers on the front-line working with terrible instructions and quotas. By all means, be angry at the system, but also show some sympathy for those who are forced to enact the system. But maybe that’s just me.
Keeping the film held together is the lead performance by Dave Johns; a stand-up comedian making his feature-film debut here as the titular Daniel Blake. Comedians often make the best dramatic actors because of their necessary understanding of humanity that comes from humour and this is no exception. I’d go as far to say that this is the type of star-making turn that would normally net an actor an Oscar nomination if it wasn’t for the relatively low-profile of a film like this. Johns runs the gamut of emotions and every one of them is convincingly portrayed and consistently human and relatable. Hayley Squires is incredible as well and while her arc over the course of the film is a bit predictable (the type of arc that TV Tropes articles are written about) it’s still harrowing stuff to watch unfold, particularly how Daniel Blake responds to it towards the end of the film.
But the film also has a warmth to it. Not just through the sense of community I mentioned earlier, but there are legitimately funny jokes and gags sprinkled throughout. No, this isn’t going to be mistakenly nominated for “Best Comedy” at the Golden Globes but the characters are witty, they’re smart and they find solace and happiness in the company of others. ‘I, Daniel Blake‘ may rip your heart out, but it’s only able to do that by showing that these people have hearts of their own.
And without getting into spoilers, the ending is devastating. As in, the type of ending where you sit quietly sobbing at the state of the world for days. Because regardless of how this story could have ended, very few of them consist of wholly happy endings. Because we’re not dealing with a movie with a singular antagonist or an entity that can be fought. The threat at play is the system these people are living under. A system that is unable to shift without massive change that cannot be done by someone like Daniel Blake, no matter how noble his intentions or how much conviction he has. Because just because you’re right or have done nothing wrong doesn’t always mean you get to win, or even survive. In that regard, ‘I, Daniel Blake‘ actually seems to betray the very rules of storytelling that we’ve grown accustomed to. We like to see protagonists struggle against a threat and either change or overcome it but here that’s not gonna happen. The poison in the system runs too deep.
If this movie was shown to an audience in their own hypothetical bubble, detached from any real world context, they’d probably mistake the setting of 2016 Britain in ‘I, Daniel Blake’ for some sort of ‘1984’ inspired dystopia or a cruel system designed to beat people down deliberately that couldn’t possibly exist in reality. At one point, Daniel describes it as a “monumental farce” and I’m sure this hypothetical audience would agree that it’s so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly happen in 2016.
But this isn’t fiction. This is a system that is very, very real.
I normally don’t devote a segment in these reviews to a film’s reception, but many tabloid shills or Conservative politicians have deemed the film to be pure “fiction” or not representative of the livelihoods of people living under austerity. But speaking as someone who exists in the real world, this film is intensely true to life. Yes, Daniel Blake may be a fictional character, but he stands for people who have been treated like dogs by a dehumanising system. People living in one of the Top 5 most economically prosperous countries on the planet who, through no fault of their own, were abandoned by the people who swore to protect them.
Paul Turner – A man from Birmingham who was deemed fit for work after suffering a heart attack. He died 2 months later. In a way, HE is Daniel Blake.
Lawrence Bond – Died on his way home from a Job Centre after being deemed fit for work despite mobility and breathing issues. He is Daniel Blake.
David Metcalf, Mark Wood, Michael Bispham, Robert Hunt, Phillip Williams are all people who were declared fit for work despite life altering disability or medical disorders. Some of them died after losing their benefits. They are Daniel Blakes.
Paul Reekie, Richard Sanderson, Stephanie Bottrill, Paul Willcoxson, Leanne Chambers, Christelle Pardo, Kayjah Pardo, Elaine Christian, Robert Christian, David Clapson, Tuvala Widow, David Groves, Elaine Lowe, Shaun Pilkington, Nicholas Peter Barker, Robert Barlow, David Barr, Cecilia Burns, Chris Cann, Steven Cawthra. All Daniel Blakes, who died shortly after being declared fit for work. Either by their medical conditions or by suicide after having their benefits sanctioned.
Oh, I’m still not done.
David Coupe, Trevor Drakard, Miss D.E., Jacqueline Harris, Vicky Harrison, Peter Hodgson, Stephen Hill, Edward Jacques, Brian McArdle, Craig Monk, Terry McGarvey, Sandra Louise Moon, Mark Mullins, Helen Mullins, Larry Newman, Carl Payne, Lee Robinson, Martin Rust, Tim Salter, Mark Scott, Elenore Tatton, Clon Traynor, Paul Turner, John Walker, Julia Kelly, Mark Wood, Ben McDonald, Chris Smith, Michael Connolly, Martin Hadfield, Janet McCall, Peter Duut, Mick Moore. This list of names is never-ending. All on the other end of a simple Google search. All Daniel Blake’s.
And these are just a few of the names that we know about. Between December 2011 and February 2014, almost 2,400 died as a result of having their benefits cut after being declared “fit for work”. Thousands and thousands of Daniel Blake’s.
Daniel Blake might be a fictional creation from Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty brought to life by Dave Johns. But his struggle for hundreds of thousands of people across the U.K. as a result of Conservative Austerity is very real.
I’ve not got a witty or clever summary paragraph here. Sorry if that disappoints anyone.
I give ‘I, Daniel Blake‘ 5 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 11th Oct 17