IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 100 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Daniel Blake is a 59 year old widower living in Newcastle. He’s worked all his adult life as a joiner, but has recently had a heart attack. His doctor deems him unfit for work, but the Department of Work and Pensions don’t consider him to be unhealthy enough to apply for sickness benefit and he has to apply for job seeker’s allowance instead, coercing him into a pointless cycle of searching for jobs he cannot really take. As he attempts to appeal, he finds himself up against a brick wall of bureaucracy and red tape. Amidst all this, he meets and befriends Katie, a single mother from London who’s been forced to relocate to Newcastle because of lack of housing, and, because she got lost on the way to the job centre and was therefore late, has had her benefits stopped….
Well it’s hardly what would be considered ‘horror /cult’, though in some respects I, Daniel Blake is a horror film of sorts. But what with Eureka Entertainment having just sent me a Blu-ray screener for director Ken Loach’s much admired Kes – a film I haven’t seen before – I decided to check out his latest cinema release, a film the 80 year old filmmaker came out of retirement to make because of how poverty and benefit sanctions were destroying the lives and families of many of the poor. As he said: “I couldn’t not make it”. Now British social realism is not, as you can imagine, a genre this critic watches much of nor knows much about, while he hasn’t seen a Loach film for around twenty years or so, with neither Land And Freedom nor Hidden Agenda leaving much of an impression [though they seem to be almost atypical Loach works]. But I have rather more diverse tastes now, to the point where I’ll give most things a go, and, prompted further by Loach’s empassioned appearance on last week’s Question Time, I was rather keen to see this film that has reignited the war over benefits and has probably been a major reason for the Department of Work and Pensions deciding to overhaul work capability assessments for the disabled. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately considering how upsetting the film was and how angry it made me feel – it’s a film about which I have plenty to say and I hope that this review of what is probably Loach’s last movie will do as a companion piece to the review of his first major cinema success Kes which I will watch and review once I’ve written this particular piece.
So what we have here is something as far from your conventional Hollywood film as you could almost imagine, but it should be pretty riveting as long as you know what to expect. The slice of life drama is not just gritty but extremely grim, but is enlivened by bits of humour which are well placed, most of them coming from the mouth of Daniel Blake himself who uses jokes to help him cope with his terrible situation, though in a way the manner in which he’s treated by the system is so farcical one feels like laughing even at that when the blood isn’t boiling. The opening scene, which is mostly heard over the opening titles rather than seen, is a perfect example of this and I couldn’t imagine a better beginning to the film. Daniel, who by the way is not just recovering from a major heart attack but has not long had his wife pass away, has his patience tested by a woman at the end of the phone who calls herself a ‘healthcare professional’ and asks him a barrage of questions about his arms, his fingers, his bowels; anything but his heart. Daniel’s growing irritation at the ridiculous questions, ones he has already answered on paper, rapidly becomes hilarious and is perfectly delivered by Dave Johns, though the real-life comedian seems to struggle a bit with some, though not all, of the heavier scenes. Of course this test, the ‘fitness for work’ assessment that will decide independently of his doctors’ advice [which has been to not go back to work because he’s neither mentally nor physically ready and his heart may begin to beat abnormally] whether he can receive Employment and Support Allowance, is really no laughing matter at all.
Because Daniel hasn’t scored enough ‘points’, his application for benefit is not a success. Ludicrously but totally believably, he’s told this in a letter, but when he rings up to appeal, he’s imformed that he’ll soon recieve a phone call telling him of the decision [which he already knows due to the letter] and will then receive a letter! His only option is to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance for people who are able and ready to work, while he waits for the appeal on his ESA to be arranged. This he has to do online, but he’s never used a computer in his life and just doesn’t have a clue. While it’s brought many good things to our society, one of the saddest things about the digital revolution is how it’s leaving behind many older folk who are not computer literate and basically have to learn a totally new skill if they want to get on in life. It does seem perhaps that Loach is out to demonise the people who work at the job centre and who treat Daniel with no respect and compassion whatsoever, passing him from pillar to post and not even allowing him to start his case properly before the security guard is called to escort him out. But I’ve had to deal with similar bureaucratic nonsense of late and as far as I can see the portrayal dead right. These people may not be bad people, but they’re virtually trained to be so by a system which is distinctly uncaring and which, if you’re vulnerable, is designed to crush you – as indeed it does begin to crush this proud man who has worked all his life and has never once tried to play the system, even though he has a neighbour who is making loads of money in a definitely illegal manner.
Then there’s Katie, who is already in even more dire straights than Daniel. She’s been ‘sanctioned’ for being late to the job centre [through no fault of her own], and is therefore unable to pay for heating and has to starve herself so that her kids can eat. Her and Daniel begin a rather touching friendship, with refreshingly no romantic or sexual aspects whatsoever. His ingenious carpentry skills help make her house bearable to live in, and even her kids start to like him. An heartbreaking moment has Katie go without dinner yet again so she can give some to Daniel as it’s the only way she feels she can repay him. This film is full of little moments of pure humanity like this which are usually underplayed but all the more affecting because of this. Even more heartbreaking is when Katie goes to a food bank, a scene which should move even the most hard heated, where she rips open a can of baked beans right there because she’s so hungry, a scene superbly played by Hayley Squires who is astonishing throughout and who deserves awards. And then she meets a man and….well, I’m not going to go into the rest of the plot, but the downward slope just gets worse and worse. I did predict how the film was going to end, as indeed you may too, but if you’re the sort to cry at movies than you’ll still need to take along some tissues.
Resorting to talking about politics generally seems to me a sign of a critic who has ran out of things to say, but Loach’s films seem to demand it because they have a reputation of coming from an explicitly left wing [like the man himself] point of view. Personally, I can’t imagine anybody with a heart not finding I, Daniel Blake just so very sad, and a terrible illustration of what is wrong with our society where Government organisations often just seem there to grind people, principally the poor and the sick, into the ground. In fact, aside from one character who briefly rants about the Tories [and it’s worth mentioning that New Labour set up the current system even though it’s got progressively meaner since], I actually expected the film to be a bit more political than it actually turned out to be. It’s there, and the points are made, but not overdone and don’t take over the film. Some may feel differently. Of course it portrays a somewhat one-sided view of its subject [for every Katie there’s a White Dee], but it’s a much needed antidote to the odious, exploitative likes of Benefit Street and those articles about huge families living off benefits that crop up every now and again in certain newspapers.
While it’s obviously a film that can probably be enjoyed [if that’s the right word] and appreciated just as much on TV than on the big screen, I, Daniel Blake is really quite cinematic in its unobtrusive manner, the characters constantly shown as part of their [mostly brown and gray] environments by the slowly moving camera, close-ups being mostly reserved for certain moments. The lack of a music score enhances the feeling of reality until near the end when some music and obvious sound design make themselves heard and seem rather out of place and certainly don’t need to be there. A foul mouthed, drunk Scotsman randomly turns up straight out of an Irvine Welsh story in one particular scene which seems out of place because of this but still manages to be kind of rousing way in the way that it was clearly intended to be. Despite a few minor missteps, I, Daniel Blake is a quietly devastating piece of work that should not only leave you upset and ashamed, but may even make you realise that your life isn’t so bad after all. Whether it’ll actually change things for the better is another matter, but we certainly need filmmakers like Loach to wake us up as to what it’s really like for so many.