I, Daniel Blake (MA)
Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars
A disparate crowd of people line up outside the food bank. It’s a scene from UK director Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake, but it could have easily come straight out of Salvation Army founder William Booth’s seminal tome In Darkest England and the Way Out.
Loach’s story is set in Newcastle rather than London (where Booth lived and wrote about), but that one scene encapsulates the despair of poverty and chronic unemployment.
The difference is that Booth wrote about such issues back in the 1890s, with the view to a brighter future (the hint is in his book’s title). Loach is painting us a very different picture. In the UK that much hoped-for future—for the poor, at least—never materialised.
‘Darkest England’ prevails and while the ‘system’ is more likely to be a recorded voice track than a man in a suit, it’s still in charge.
There are no prizes for guessing where Loach’s sympathies lie (incidentally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home, his breakthrough film that sparked a national debate on homelessness in the UK in the 1960s).
As in many of his other films the simple premise belies complex issues. Comedian Dave Jones plays the eponymous Dan, a lonely yet proud carpenter who has been told by his GP that he can’t return to work because of his bad heart.
When a health check done by the health department fails to yield the 15 points he needs to access sickness benefits, Dan is told he has to apply online for job seeker allowance and apply for jobs he can’t take. Add to this, Dan is computer illiterate, and this, combined with an uncaring system means he soon finds himself in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare.
He’s far from alone. While waiting to be called up at the social security centre, Dan becomes embroiled in a fracas involving single mum Katie (an incredible Hayley Squires). The two strike-up an unlikely friendship which is never defined, but remains platonic and flourishes because of the simple fact that these two decent, loving, deserving people recognise the humanity in each other.
There’s no use denying that it’s pretty grim stuff, but thanks to screenwriter Paul Laverty’s ear for dialogue, and Jones’s natural comic timing, there’s also plenty of black humour. But perhaps the film’s greatest selling point is that juxtaposed against the ‘system’ are a people hell bent on showing us what community really means.
It’s not just how naturally an aged widower and a young single mum gravitate towards each other, but Dan shares a similarly enigmatic relationship with his unemployed neighbour, and his plight elicits the attention of a kindly government employee. Almost everyone Dan comes in contact with in and around Newcastle offers a hand, because they, too, know what it is to be touched by poverty.
While the film employs mostly actors, Loach also includes regular people, such as the volunteers who work at the food bank. The scene in which Katie is taken ‘shopping’ among the shelves is one of the most moving and challenging scenes committed to screen. Unfortunately, for The Salvation Army it’s also all-too familiar.
Highlight: an angry call for social equality
Red flag: adult themes, coarse language