Ken loach paints a picture of a world we all recognise. Enduring generic on-hold music, never-ending form-filling that leads to a great deal of nothing. As well as having to contend with this web of bureaucracy that every sane person loses their mind over, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is computer illiterate and has the added burden of looking for work in a digitalised world. Johns, who is also a stand up comedian, brings his dry wit to the screen in this otherwise utterly frustrating scenario of being deemed unfit for work by doctors after a heart attack, yet passing the government’s Work Capability Assessment.
The opening blackout of the screen, with the health ‘expert’ inquiring into Blake’s bowel movements, has the audience immediately pulled into the sharp and witty script, contrasting heavily to the final scene that caused myself and other members of the audience to audible sob. Showing emotion in a room full of strangers who are all sharing the experience seems to bind the audience into a kind of community, just as the film itself explores the unexpected relationships that form when we commit random acts of kindness.
In bitterly cold Newcastle, 59-year-old ex-carpenter Daniel Blake witnesses a young mother, Katy Morgan (Hayley Squires), being turned away from her right to claim benefits after being late for her appointment. He stands up for her and is only greeted by talk of the ‘rules’ that must be followed, which are devoid of any humanity. It is their shared hardship of struggling to make ends meet that brings about a touching depiction of altruism. Hayley Squires pours her heart and soul into a theatrical performance of a woman on the edge of holding it all together. Blake becomes the glue to her chaotic, unstable life, acting as a reminder to keep her dignity and hold her head high.
Not once does Blake lose his self-respect in front of this dehumanising system we all know so well, and he refuses to be belittled and patronised by staff. He even goes as far as spray-painting his name on the side of the job seekers building, demanding his case to be repealed in a triumphant scene that once again unites the characters on screen as well as the audience.
Whilst waiting for the Kafkaesque ‘Decision Maker’ to readdress his situation, Blake must prove he is searching for a job in order to claim benefits, yet cannot legally accept any. He is forced into an absurdist situation yet gains redemption in the relationship of care and gratitude with Katy and her two children.
Dave Johns and Hayley Squires’ performances are each a tour de force and stand out amongst the surrounding amateur actors. Thanks to partial European Union funding, I, Daniel Blake brings the often overlooked working class struggle back at the forefront of social consciousness and political debate. Loach draws our attention to the holes in Britain’s welfare system and the need more than ever to look out for one another when the system falls short of humanity.
Filed under: Film, TV & Tech