“Can you walk more than fifty metres?”
Not only did I see my first Woody Allen movie this year (‘Café Society’), but this week I saw my first ever Ken Loach film. And what a film to break my Loach virginity. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ should be essential viewing for every English citizen. It’s the story of a man (the eponymous 59 year old) who struggles through the modern day English benefits system after suffering from a heart attack. His doctor says that he isn’t fit to work, but the government (or, rather, a government-appointed company) deem him fit to work. What follows is a stomach-churning and depressing look at what happens to those struggling in modern day England. ‘Benefits Street’ may give some people lurid entertainment, but ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows us the plight of the truly needy in Britain who are left out in the cold (usually, literally). Men and women are stripped of their humanity, and I felt empty and distraught after watching Loach’s latest political rage against the machine.
Daniel Blake, a 59 year old pensioner in Newcastle, has suffered a heart attack. The film opens with him talking to a ‘healthcare professional’ who asks him irrelevant questions such as ‘Can you raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket.’ He only scores 12 points, instead of 15, of the ‘Fit to Work’ questionnaire, thus he is fit to work in the eyes of this ‘healthcare professional’ (who is neither a nurse nor a doctor) and ineligible for Employment and Support Allowance. However, his doctor has told him that he isn’t fit to work. Any stress or strenuous physical activity could result in another heart attack. He goes through a Kafka-esque nightmare trying to appeal the decision made by the healthcare professional, and eventually ends up applying for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Along the way, he meets a London woman, Katie, complete with three kids. She’s denied JSA, and together they try to survive against the odds of a benefits system that ignores those in desperate need of help.
“I’ve never been anywhere near a computer”
Right from the beginning, the slow rage begins. Blake tries to answer the silly questions seriously, but also asks what they have to do with his heart condition. The “healthcare professional” doesn’t want to know about his heart condition. All she cares about is the questions in front of her. The points-based system disregards people as people. It’s a demeaning exercise in futility for those whom the questions don’t apply to. Already, the wheels are set in motion for a film that will offer a little humour to lighten the load, but plenty of rage-inducing moments of a never-ending bureaucracy that treats humans as nothing more than numbers.
Blake, played by Dave Johns, instantly captures the admiration of the audience. Witty, funny and ‘human,’ his sarcastic responses to the ‘healthcare professional’ had me and the audience heartily laughing. Sometimes, that’s all you can do in the face of such absurdity. His relationship with Katie, which begins after both are ejected from the JobCentrePlus after a few disagreements with management, depicts Blake as a man willing to help anyone in need of help. He fixes things in her new council house, and even gives her twenty pound to put in her electricity metre. Their parallel stories intertwine and show us how deep the poverty line goes in Tory Britain. They are both trying to hold onto their dignity, whilst struggling to cope with a hopeless situation. Katie wants to give her two kids a fighting chance in life; Blake merely wants to carry on as normal, as he did before his heart attack.
It’s a difficult watch, and often not a necessarily enjoyable one. Blake’s moments of humour (when dealing with a PC or the internet, for example), lighten the mood, but only temporarily. And they are placed strategically to increase the viewer’s sympathy for Blake (it works as well!). However, from the workmanlike direction, to views of post-industrial Britain, to a soundtrack that’s barely there, the film is an exercise in social realism. And there’s no escaping the depression. A scene involving Katie in a food bank is viscerally upsetting. Blake’s struggles with the digital world are funny, but at the same time outrageous. The over-reliance on the PC and the internet have written out a whole generation of people like Daniel Blake (my father can barely navigate his emails!). When a system depends on digital means, some people will be left out. The sheer torture of the benefits system is laid bare for all to see. Blake’s next door neighbour, China, says that that rigmarole of the system is purposeful. It’s done to make the whole process “as miserable as possible.” So you won’t bother and just accept your fate.
“It’s a monumental farce, isn’t it?”
There are a few moments where you want to punch the air: Blake’s graffiti moment is one of them. Another jars with the social realism of the drama, but when it involves a Scotsman ranting about Tory disregard of the poor and love of privatisation, who could not be whipped up into a frenzy? No one does anger quite like the Scots. Yes, it can be argued that it’s the antithesis of ‘Benefits Street.’ Maybe ‘I, Daniel Blake’s portrayal of the needy and poor is too sympathetic. There is no one in this film undeserving of help from the state. But is that any reason to criticise the film? No. Sometimes you have to exaggerate things to grab people’s attention.
‘I, Daniel Blake’ is grim, depressing and unrelenting. There’s great humour strewn throughout the wreckage of its depiction of Broken Britain, but it only increases the gut-wrenching effectiveness of the film as a whole. As the credits rolled, people slowly left the cinema in silence. People had been crying (I was one of them). Jeremy Corbyn may have recommended to Theresa May that she watch ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ But it’s a film every Brit should watch. It’s the story of how the Tories have dismantled the safety net for those truly in need in saving. You won’t enjoy watching it for much of its duration. But you’ll have woken up to the true state of Tory Britain after watching it.
VERDICT: 9/10. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is potent and pertinent. Thoroughly depressing but lightened by the natural charisma of the actor behind Daniel Blake, it’s a brutal critique of Tory Britain. I thought the Tories could not anger me anymore. This film proved me wrong. Watch it, right now!
What did you think of ‘I, Daniel Blake’? Leave your comments below!