Review: ‘I, Daniel Blake’

When uttering the title out loud, “I, Daniel Blake” is a weighted declaration. The words are ordered and phrased as the opening of a testimony, an introduction spoken before a jury, or typed on a paper you must sign. In these three spoken words we refer to ourselves (“I”) and another (“Daniel Blake”) simultaneously, a good exercise in empathy. It is empathy that forms the focus Ken Loach’s film – he suggests that it exists in working-class communities, but is extinct at the level of the state.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), recently out of work after a heart attack, and young single mother of two Katie (Hayley Squires) are the central characters of this tale. Set in present-day Newcastle where Daniel has lived and worked all his life, Katie’s move from London to Newcastle is determined by the availability of a council  flat where she can finally make a home for herself and her two children, Daisy and Dylan. However, her move comes at the price of distance from her mum, a situation indicative of many family splits due to an economic social cleansing far too prevalent in the capital. Daniel and Katie meet in The Job Centre, a vortex where individual circumstances are dismissed or ignored by various staff members, including managers and private-firm security guards (when I signed on last year in London I was shocked to find G4S currently run security in The Job Centre). The reasoning for this overly bureaucratic system is laid out clearly by Daniel’s neighbour, China (Kema Sikazwe), who explains  that it is intended to wear claimants down and make them give up. China’s explanation seems uncomfortably close to the truth, as anyone who has signed on in recent years will know.

Loach’s previous works include Poor Cow (1967), Kes (1969) and Sweet Sixteen (2002). I, Daniel Blake keeps Loach’s defining “realist” code very much intact and is told with particular urgency, almost to the point of didacticism. In Blake, medium, static camera shots prevail in the display of wrenched yet quotidian drama, a cinematic device which allows the narrative to unfold in an environment where human bodies do not appear to effect the camera’s movement. Subsequently, the mise-en-scene relays a mechanically rendered notion of “truth”. Slightly wooden acting also generates a somewhat didactic feeling. This quality is more notable in some characters, such as Katie’s child Daisy (Briana Shann) and Daniel’s neighbors, and less in scenes with Squires whose acting is particularly “naturalistic”. Characters function as vehicles for dialogue and situations which shine a bright light onto the unjust nature of the corporatized welfare system. This is exemplified frequently and consistently with the infuriatingly deadlock conversations Daniel must conduct with Job Centre employees, both on the phone and face to face. There is no doubt which side one is meant to agree with in this portrayal, but I do not point to this as a negative attribute. I, Daniel Blake is in no way the leftist equivalent of right wing rhetoric so prevalent in present UK advertising, news bias, and political “spin”. Instead I felt that Loach used didacticism as a mode of clarity, a form of resistance to a liberal-academic process of creating complex signaling between sign and symbol, narrative and message, depiction and allegiance.

The scene which takes place in a food-bank is a pinnacle of the film’s success in how it uses social-realism to create a humane portrayal of a struggle with poverty. The praise this scene in particular has received is well deserved. In it, poverty has developed in the narrative unfolding and become part of a tragic normality for Katie. As she approaches the food bank, the presence of a long queue describes a wide spread issue under a present political condition. Once inside she is met with kindness as a lady takes her around assuring she gets everything she needs. The dynamic center of this scene occurs when Katie opens a can of food and starts eating it. We sink into the desperation she feels, illustrated by extreme hunger and tears, the most poignant moment in the film.
I, Daniel Blake does not simply say “a corporate state is bad, working class people are good”. It subtly alludes to privatisation in more general sense. Benefits may be the main issue which the drama circulates, but Loach also points to a destabilizing privatization in other sectors that were once state owned and run. These include the “right-to-buy” scheme concerning the selling of council flats initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s. The lack of social housing which effects Katie is direct result of this sell-off. Loach also calls into question the future of the NHS. Described in the opening sequence, a “professional health care employee” from a private firm questions Daniel and effectively over rules an NHS nurse and doctor assessment, throwing Daniel into the Job Seekers Allowance rigmarole. This reflection of the current political climate is therefore posited as a web of relations and circumstance. As a result, criminal activity including theft, counterfeiting and prostitution are not conventionally phrased as the dirty habits of ‘lowlifes’. Instead, we empathise to the reasons one might negotiate with crime as it becomes the only option when faced with a set of desperate circumstances such as not having enough money to eat. Katie’s introduction into prostitution is a very well-handled example of this. Loach resists the dominant stigmatism and judgement by placing Katie’s decision into sex-work as one in tandem with the need to provide for her kids. (I would like to clarify I do not want to read this as “justification” of prostitution because sex work does not need to be “justify” itself, especially not in relation to strategies which seek to discern positive and negative ways in which one use their body.)

Throughout the film, community is a necessary shining light, kinship and kindness essential to one’s survival, where love overrides internal quarrelling. It is this pulsating display of affection between people in the working class community that is so beautifully displayed in I, Daniel Blake. Regardless of gender, race and age, all are human.

James Slattery

‘I,  Daniel Blake’ is currently running in UK cinemas.

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