After announcing that 2014’s Jimmy’s Hall would mark the conclusion to his filmmaking career, Ken Loach (Kes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) came out of retirement to make his 19th feature film I, Daniel Blake. And thank the heavens, for no one possesses the ability to depict the social issues and inequalities plaguing Great Britain quite like Loach and his loyal co-writer Paul Laverty.
Following a heart attack nearly had him fall from a scaffolding, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is placed on sick leave by his cardiologist. The 59-year-old woodworker is no longer allowed to work and, for the first time in his life, he needs government assistance to subsist.
The film opens with Daniel speaking to a “healthcare professional,” a fancy title for a social assistant who has absolutely no medical training. After a series of preposterous questions (i.e. “Are you able to lift your arm as if to put a hat on your head?” Yes? Then you are able to work!), they will evaluate his case and decide on his fate. To emphasize the ridiculous hardship they put people through, Loach has intentionally left the screen black. It is a heart-wrenching conversation, punctuated with Daniel’s wit (Johns is a stand-up comedian). And it marks the beginning of what will be a long and tedious process for him.
Thinking he would be eligible for a support pension, the “healthcare professional” deems he is physically able to work and refers him to apply for Jobseekers’ Allowance instead, with the stipulation that he must look for a job. Who cares what a qualified doctor said about his heart condition?
Daniel rapidly discovers you need computer skills, Internet connection, a smartphone and lots of patience to “hold the line”—while listening to Muzak—to even be considered for a pension. During an appointment at the job center, Daniel stands up for a young single mother-of-two who is dismissed because she arrived five minutes late. Katie (Hayley Squires) recently moved to from London to Newcastle, 300 miles away from her family. It was her only chance to move from her one-room hostel to a decent apartment. Daniel, a widower with no children of his own, treats her like a daughter, helping her fix up her place and even forms a bond with her young children, Daisy and Dylan.
Yet the state drives them further into a hole as both are caught in the nets of welfare bureaucracy. In its depiction of a sick man who has paid taxes all his life and a young mother who has to start life from scratch in an unknown city, I, Daniel Blake is Loach’s indictment of the failing safety net system. It drives people to give up.
Squires plays Katie without pathos, yet she extracts tears from us with the brave face her character puts on, masking the frustrations and humiliations of her situation. The film itself was received with loud applause—twice—at the end of the press screening here. “Bravo!” hailed some, proving that the Loach-ian Revolution is still in motion.