I, DANIEL BLAKE is an acclaimed film by directing and writing team Ken Loach and Paul Laverty. It tells the tortured odyssey of Daniel and Katie through the benefit system in Newcastle, in the north-east of England, where he is a local, while she and her two children are incomers from London, castaways on the desert island of poverty.
It’s a hard watch, no doubt intentionally so. The scenes in the food bank are visceral and telling. The best achieved in the film. The scene in the CV workshop is chilling; the statistics and the put-down; the many workers, in the Job Centre Plus and associated settings, prepared to operate the monstrous system, often besuited or be-uniformed, using a discourse of ‘work, assistance and sanction’ in one and the same breath. It is Kafkaesque, yes; chilling, confusing and all too real in its detachment.
Images of Daniel Blake, played brilliantly by Dave Johns, trudging about the city centre, around building sites and small industrial units are a far cry from the world of work glamorised for the digital denizens of multi-coloured offices, filled with latte-swigging workers, lounging on jelly-bean filled bags.
The film is a forensic detailing of the experience of one man grieving for his late wife, coping with illness and loss of work and income, who makes time to respond to the needs of a young woman and her two children. It is a frightening account of ageing, desperation, illness and isolation, underlining the truth of the old Simon Community TV ad of how close individuals are to destitution. Two wage packets, was it?
As in many of the duo’s films, gestures to art and imagination are important. In this case, there is the wonderful graffito on the wall of the Job Centre Plus, which leads again to sanction (a brush with the law and a police caution) rather than concrete assistance. There are also Daniel’s crafting efforts with waste wood. And a great performance gesture in scenes with a chorus of hen-party revellers and dole claimants, who cheer the soliloquy by the man, who offers Daniel his jacket and castigates the arresting police officers, saying that they too will face job losses due to rampant privatisation.
All the principals are accomplished and the supporting cast, though not detailed in any great depth, are credible, in particular Sharon Percy as Shirley in the Job Centre Plus.
The film-makers are parsimonious with hope. The workers in the employ of the state and their outsourced agencies are brutalised and brutish, indoctrinated rather than educated. Is there hope for the children? Not obviously. There are the sterling efforts by the food-bank workers to be humane; the attempts by some Job Centre Plus staff to assist.
The dominant discourse is offered by the market. This is tragic, given that the market has proven itself inept and dangerous, unable to meaningfully deliver decent lives for citizens. The mantra ‘let the market decide’ delivers what it does; saleable goods for short-term profits. Daniel Blake can’t sell his labour, his skills, experience and utility, due to illness. He sells his last assets, a few sticks of furniture. Katie has none and resorts to using the only asset she has: her self. She makes her choice, with pain and then endures, with pain. There is humiliation, yes. It is a commonplace.
The speech by Katie at the end, delivered with power and eloquence, is telling. Does it offer hope? Or confirm the desperation? It bookends the theatricality of the opening, where voices only are used. At the end, a soliloquy given in ‘direct address’ to the camera and the audience, asserting the rights of citizens is the best the film-makers can offer. When the story is so desperate, when hope is absent, does film-making break down? Do the film-makers lose heart and resort to the great gestures of theatre? Tragedy. Speech. Words. The face, in close-up, as film’s grand gesture. Defiance and dissent. Alone.
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I, Daniel Blake is another wonder from Ken Loach and Paul Laverty. It is story of today, a universal story rooted in the north-east of England and reaching internationally. Hence, the awards. It tells the story using the forms of realism, forms well used by the film-makers in the past, worrying to the cinema-goer that we merely watch and consume vicariously, as we would any of today’s omni-screen offerings. Two early-teen girls left the screening after an hour. The cinema-goer was not surprised. The first hour is formidably left-wing and educational and, arguably, it needs to be, in the face of the dominant neo-liberal discourse. It gets going when the conflict between the two characters gingers up on an economic decision the young woman makes.
In interviews around the time of the making of the film, people involved, took hope from the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as head of The British Labour Party. So did the cinema-goer. Polling figures for The British Labour Party are not good, even among older people, Ken Loach’s peers and the people most likely to vote.
The day following the viewing the cinema-goer had a conversation with a middle-aged woman who works in a café. She is caught in the JSA/ESA (unemployment benefit) trap as her casual contract will not be of any use as she faces surgery on her feet, worn out by years of work.
Enduring seems to be the only option now, for Daniel, Katie, her children and their fellows in the country. The tragedy of living on JSA/ESA is well told and the desperation is not shirked. That a wealthy society should get to be like this is obscene. Any wonder Gary Lineker, ace-footballer, patriot and TV presenter could tweet, in a related context about ‘utterly heartless treatment’ to young refugees and that the cinema-goer can wonder with the footballer;
‘What is happening to our country?’
I, Daniel Blake is in selected cinemas now.
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