I, Daniel Blake makes its intentions blindingly clear from its opening salvo: a fiery criticism of successive UK governments’ efforts to dismantle the country’s benefits system.
The film opens on black as the credits roll, accompanied by the sound of the titular Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) undergoing an assessment for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). He’s a carpenter who, after a major heart attack, has been strongly advised not to work by his doctors. That’s of little concern to the ‘health professional’ assessing him however, who ultimately declares him fit to work because he didn’t score enough points to prove his ill health.
This is just the beginning of Daniel’s calamitous efforts to secure the benefit payments he needs to survive. As he appeals his verdict he’s forced onto Jobseeker’s Allowance instead, applying for jobs he knows he can’t take in order to keep receiving his payments. All the while the system throws up unbearable, infuriating obstacles, not least the repeated expectation that he’ll be comfortable and capable filling in forms and applying for jobs using a PC.
Through all this he befriends young single mother Kattie (Hayley Squires), a fellow victim of the system. After two years living with her two kids in a London hostel, she’s finally been offered a flat — up in Newcastle. After they cross paths at the Jobcentre, Daniel does his best to help her as she tries to support her kids in a new city with no money, sacrificing her own health for their sake.
Director Ken Loach is no stranger to films bearing social or political weight, but I, Daniel Blake may be one of his most pointed yet. The whole film is quietly furious, illustrating how the benefits system fails people time and time again — and often seems designed to do exactly that. It serves to strip the dignity from the very people it’s supposed to be supporting, creating dependents out of those it should be helping get back on their feet, repeatedly demanding compliance through the threat of homelessness and starvation.
Thankfully Loach is smart enough to find and mine a strain of black comedy in the midst of all this, and some of the film’s best moments express a sort of exasperated bewilderment at the state of it all. You could say it sparks incredulity, except that scenes just like this are playing out across the country every day, more often than most of us might care to admit. This is Loach railing against a government that’s turned its citizens into customers and clients and left them to suffer as a result.
For the most part, I, Daniel Blake avoids the pitfalls of melodrama (though not quite entirely). Johns plays Daniel with quiet understatement, enough so that his eventual angry flourish feels bitterly earned. A similar approach is reflected in the subdued camerawork and sparse editing — those closest thing to a visual flourish is the repeated use of a slow fade to black, allowing the film’s toughest scenes time to settle.
Anyone quick to write off all benefits claimants as scroungers and layabouts will find themselves diametrically opposed to the film’s thrust, but then perhaps they’re the people that need to see I, Daniel Blake the most. For as powerful and pointed as the film is, there’s a real risk that it only preaches to the choir across festivals and arthouse cinemas. Anyone care to organise a screening for the Tory cabinet instead?
Words by Dominic Preston