I, Daniel Blake is a Ken Loach film about a Newcastle joiner who can’t work but faces a welfare bureaucracy that won’t listen, humiliates him, grinds him down, so it’s fun, fun, fun all the way. Yes, it is that Ken Loach film, but as that Ken Loach film is more powerful than most other films — and this is fearsomely moving (I cried), and fearsomely tender (I cried again) — you’re just going to have to suck it up.
It has been 50 years since Cathy couldn’t come home and 47 years since Billy buried that bird at the bottom of the garden and while Loach has strayed into other genres — the magical realism of Looking for Eric, for instance — his best work has always captured the daily lives of ordinary people whose heart, humanity and humour are their only weapons against a system that plain doesn’t care. This is what is captured here, and while there are moments of simplistic sentimentality, its intimacy and naturalness mean you never feel as if you’re being played. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and is written by Paul Laverty, Loach’s long-time collaborator who has said that one of their starting points was the fact that the British public believes 24 per cent of welfare payments are claimed fraudulently whereas the official estimate is 0.7 per cent. I forgot to say: this is fearsomely shaming too.
The film stars Dave Johns as Dan, who is 60-ish, has suffered a heart attack and has been told by his doctors that he can’t return to work for now. He has to sign on. As a self-reliant man who has always ‘paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so’ this is a first, and he finds it degrading. But if only it ended there. He soon enters a world where he becomes a ‘service user’ waiting to hear back from a ‘decision-maker’. He suffers the Vivaldi hell of hanging on the phone in an attempt to speak to someone from the DWP. He is instructed to fill in forms online when he is computer- illiterate. And we know we have hit peak Kafka when, to receive support, he has to spend 30 hours a week looking for work he can’t take. This is the bones of the story although there is also a side plot. When Dan sees a single mother being sanctioned and denied support for herself and her two children because she’s a few minutes late for her Job Centre appointment, he takes her side, and a friendship is formed. This is Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been moved from London to Newcastle, away from all she knows, because it’s the cheapest way for her own council to house her.
Listed like this, the film sounds like Loach at his most Loach, and possibly the least fun you will ever, ever have. But it is, thankfully, tempered with some deliciously comic moments — I laughed, I cried — as when Dan first attempts to use a computer mouse, or attends a ‘work capability assessment’ where the ‘healthcare professional’ takes him through a long form which asks about his bowel movements. (‘I’ve had a heart attack …I want to get back to work too …now will you please ask me about my heart and not my arse, which works fine…’)
Dan is not, as a rule, an angry man. Dan has the three H’s (heart, humanity, humour) in spades. Dan is a gentle craftsman who makes wooden fish mobiles for Katie’s kids. And Dave Johns, otherwise a stand-up comic, provides a wonderful performance, showing us the character’s mischief, empathy, kindness and horror of pity as he struggles to survive. We care for him, a great deal. The Katie character could have been less successful, as her trajectory is more predictable, more sentimental, more out-and-out demanding of our own pity but Squires’s naturalism makes her absolutely believable, and there’s a scene in a food bank that is so shockingly heart-rending you won’t ever get it out of your mind.
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