I, Daniel Blake is seething with a righteous anger.
To be fair, this is very much what one might expect from Ken Loach. Loach is a very socially conscious filmmaker, with films like Cathy Come Home and The Riff-Raff exploring themes related to poverty and working class life in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. I, Daniel Blake offers a timely and searing critique of the government policies that have left the working class tired and resentful. It is a searing portrayal of twenty-first century Britain, perhaps even more timely now than when it won the Palme d’Or in May.
I, Daniel Blake is anchored in two fantastic central performances. Dave Johns is mesmerising as the title character, a middle-aged widower facing a humiliating gauntlet of public sector bureaucracy in order to claim benefits to help him recover from a heart attack. Hayley Squires is impressive as Katie, a single mother moved to a strange town struggling to make ends meet anyway she can. Johns and Squires bring a humanity to I, Daniel Blake that balances well against Loach’s sheer unadulterated contempt for the status quo.
There are times at which I, Daniel Blake threatens to turn into a polemic, an angry rant more than a narrative. However, the performances keep the film grounded. More than that, Loach’s piping hot fury feels so necessary and so timely that any heavy-handedness can be excused.
I, Daniel Blake perfectly captures the humiliation of claiming social welfare. For somebody who has spent their life working, who wants to work but cannot find a job, there is something demeaning about the process of admitting that in an official capacity. To many people, seeking government aid can feel like an admission of failure, an acknowledgement of their own uselessness. Despite the myth of the scrounger and the fraud, very few people take pride in admitting that they need the state’s help to survive.
The eponymous character is one such person. A construction worker who suffered a heart attack, Daniel Blake is ruled medically unfit to work. However, despite notes from his doctor and physical therapist, his claim for welfare is rejected by a “health care professional” because he does not have enough “points” on the arbitrary scale. The film acknowledges the challenges that face Daniel as a result of this cursory dismissal, made over the phone without any face-to-face contact based purely on some shuffled paperwork.
Indeed, I, Daniel Blake almost plays best as a Kafka-esque comedy about Daniel’s efforts to navigate the privatised bureaucracy of the welfare system, where it seems like the civil servants are there to stand guard over that precious welfare money. Daniel is kept waiting on the phone for well over an hour, as illustrated with delightful comedy montages that portray the mind-numbing dullness of it. Daniel is forced to sit through a class on how to write a CV that is given by some lecturer who uses the word “fact” as a punctuation.
The Orwellian double-talk adds a layer of perverse comedy to proceedings. Constant references are made to the “decision-maker”, the ominous and faceless figure who holds Daniel’s life in his hands. During the opening scenes, the woman on the phone with Daniel quite pointedly labels herself a “health care professional”, ignoring Daniel’s question as to whether she is a “doctor” or a “nurse” or whether she holds any qualification at all. There are points at which I, Daniel Blake plays almost as a black comedy about a man trapped in a broken system, stuck in circles.
However, I, Daniel Blake constantly reinforces the idea that this twisted joke has a very human punchline. The ridiculous nature of the suffocating bureaucracy is set against the petty vindictiveness of power-tripping civil servants who seem to actively resent the people that they are trusted to represent. Daniel is humiliated by virtue of having to ask for aid, but there is something malicious in the way that those staff members use what little authority they have to “sanction” him, to reprimand him, to make him perform for their own abstract goals.
I, Daniel Blake presents a system that is fundamentally broken, and justifiably rages against it. There are millions of people who can empathise with the protagonist, forced to jump through hoops with the promise of maybe getting enough money to survive the week, only to watch it all taken away on the whim of some pencil-pusher with no practical experience of what it is like to have to beg for help from a government to whom a person has paid taxes their whole life. The anger is certainly righteous.
(Still, Loach’s anarchist streak shines through. I, Daniel Blake seems to have difficulty imagining any type of regulation or structuring for an institution like this. Although there are several staff who are helpful and eager, particularly in the context of the local foodbank, there is a sense that most of the staff working at the welfare office are malicious sadists. At one point an angry onlooker rants at the police about the Tories and “privatisation”, but I, Daniel Blake seems to suggest social welfare could never work regardless of policy or funding or circumstance.)
I, Daniel Blake never loses sight of the people caught in the middle of this sprawling monstrous machine. Daniel and Katie are both humanised and developed, fully fleshed out and developed so that their slow degradation by the welfare state might be made all the more wretching. There is a sadism to Loach’s depiction of these lives ground beneath the state’s heel, one that is all the more striking for the romanticism of the first half hour. Daniel and Katie seem very much like feel-good stories waiting to happen, making their ordeals all the more unsettling.
There are points at which I, Daniel Blake feels more like an angry screed than a compelling drama in its own right. Indeed, the film ends with a character reading a prepared statement that explicitly outlines the themes of the film that had been hammered out over the past one hundred minutes. This can feel distracting and occasionally manipulative. However, Loach’s venom is so laser-focused and his leads are so compelling that I, Daniel Blake can get away with it.