Movie review: I, Daniel Blake

(image via IMP awards)
(image via IMP awards)

 

Humanity does not have a good track record at effective self-governance.

From genocidal wars to brutal dictatorships through to the relatively benign, dead hand of stultifying bureaucracy, people have shown a deplorable capacity for holding an extremely sharp knife to their own vulnerable throats.

As the latest masterpiece from master director Ken Loach, I Daniel Blake, makes vividly clear, this does not stem from any kind of weird suicidal urge or penchant for making life any more difficult than it is already.

In fact, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a self-sufficient man, a builder who nursed his wife Molly through mental illness, and who is proud of his record as a law abiding taxpayer, is simply someone who wants to be treated fairly and to be looked after when he is least able to do it for himself.

A recent heart attack survivor who almost toppled from the scaffolding at a building site when his body gave way, he is forced to accept welfare payments in the form of the Orwellianly-titled Employment and Support Allowance, government supplied income which is supposed to tide him over until he is fit to return to the workforce, something he very much wants to do.

Unfortunately, thanks to the neo-liberal love for outsourcing any and all government services, a flunky with no real medical training deems him fit to work in the face of a slew of medical evidence to the contrary and Daniel finds himself having to satisfy the draconian requirements of the Jobseekers Allowance, which seems, name aside, to be wholly dedicated to thwarting a person’s ability to find employment.

Rather than encouraging and equipping people to get to the point where they can take charge of their lives again, this allowance, administered in the main by bureaucrats more obsessed with rule observance and ticking boxes than caring for people, punitively punishes the slightest infraction, catching unsuspecting souls like Daniel, who calls out the illogicality of it all to nil effect, in a useless web of sticks and ever bigger sticks.

 

 

Caught in the same self-defeating nightmare is a devoted single mother Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) whose two children by two different ill-judged partners (her words) Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan) are remarkably self-possessed despite the travails of their impoverished upbringing (like any good mother Katie has put their needs ahead of her own).

Sent hundreds of kilometres from home and a family support network by a bureaucracy which deems an apartment in Newcastle to be the same as one in her native London, Katie finds herself scraping desperately to make ends meet, sanctioned by a merciless bureaucracy which has no time for a woman new to a city she never wanted to live in getting lost on her way to a vitally important bureaucracy.

As Daniel and Katie come together in a touching father/daughter-like relationship at the local job centre, a Kafka-esque nightmare of diminishing hope and escalating punishment, it becomes transparent than an inflexible uncaring bureaucracy staffed by people who have, in the main, long since ceased to care will not be the source of any meaningful succour for either of them.

Indeed, it has more of a propensity to pull what little rug is left out from under them, leaving them to support each other as best they can.

In reality, it is Daniel, with mounting financial problems of his own, who is Katie’s saving grace, providing the young woman who, despite everything, wants to make a go of it and stand on her own two feet, with the kind of support the system is palpably incapable of providing.

As the slowly-unfurling but intensely gripping and deeply moving narrative of I, Daniel Blake plays out – the script by Paul Laverty is understated but demonstrably powerful – we bear witness to a system that was intended to elevate and uplift people instead becoming their captor and tormentor, the source of their grief rather than its enabling alleviator.

It is an Alice in Wonderland, Monty Python-esque world, with neither the former’s charming oddity or the latter’s satirical good humour, which eats people up alive, taking their self respect and hope for a better self-sustaining future with it.

It is not a world you escape easily nor triumph over and despite their initial hope and willingness to fight on, both Daniel and Katie find themselves being ground down by this illogical, almost insane system which is as clear a case of the tail cruelly wagging the dog as you’re ever likely to see.

 

Ken Loach has often commented on the plight of the common man through his long and insightful career, and I, Daniel Blake is another powerful entry in his social commentary canon.

Drawn from a graffiti’d message Daniel spray paints on the walls of the Job Centre when one unreasonable demand too many forces his hand,, the film demonstrates the innate need of every person to have a say in the trajectory of their own lives, making it abundantly clear that all the majority of people want is a temporary helping hand to get on their way.

But a system meant to help them instead drags them further and further down punishing them in a breathtaking display of un-self awareness – put perhaps it is aware and sadly simply doesn’t care anymore – leaving people like Katie and proud, self-capable Daniel to cope as best they can.

The result is a situation in which decent, good people are left at the mercy of the establishment, products of a neo-liberalist world which crows about the efficiency of the market as if it is a caring, living and wise thing, when in fact it is nothing of the sort.

If ever there was a case for people to be treated as people and not economic goods and chattels then I, Daniel Blake is it, an emotionally powerful film that serves as a damning indictment of humanity’s delusion that it is capable of looking after the least of these.

Rather the poorest, the weakest and the lost have to spend what little spare energy and time they have left at their disposal battling a system that was meant to be their saviour, finding themselves damned in the process and increasingly unable to forge the kinds of lives they simply want to be given a chance to create if only someone will let them.

 

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