I, Daniel Blake
At both Cannes and BAFTA, Ken Loach accepted well-deserved awards for I, Daniel Blake and reliably attacked the current Government’s austerity cuts in fired up speeches. He’s always been the best kind of troublemaker, but that reputation obfuscates that he is a quiet and unassuming sort of chap. You really do have to watch the quiet ones.
Like it’s director, I, Daniel Blake is a film notable for its dignified approach to an undignified process. Gently persistent, it is nevertheless powerful, moving and has not a shred of mercy for a hidden villain hiding behind a process seemingly designed to cripple people. You’re going to enjoy spending time with Daniel (Dave Johns) and Katie (Hayley Squires), but you’ll be left winded by the injustice they suffer.
Set in Newcastle, the story, written by Ken Loach’s long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, begins with Daniel Blake having his fitness for work assessed over a laborious phone call. The tone of the lady he is speaking to is infuriatingly flat and she refuses to listen; a trait she shares with other officials. Daniel recently suffered a heart attack and his Doctor has advised he cannot work, but the DWP need to review his case to decide whether his benefits should continue. He only scores 12 of the required 15 points and he is quickly trapped in a horrible grey area, forced to look for work he cannot accept and continually prove that he is not a scrounger. Meanwhile, he befriends Katie, a young mother of two children who has recently moved from London. Arriving five minutes late for her appointment at the Job Centre, she is humiliated and left without any of the benefit to which she is legally entitled.
It would be fair to be suspicious of the film’s intentions. Is it contrived to further the clear agenda it was made with and make the viewer cross? Perhaps it isn’t a fair reflection of a system that’s trying to serve everyone while weeding out those that would abuse it. The film’s few critics believe so, but all you have to do is ask yourself if you can relate to the story, even in a small way. Perhaps you know a Daniel or a Katie. If you do, everything that happens in the film is rendered plausible and it is a shameful indictment of a broken system.
It is also easy to be convinced by Ken Loach’s almost-documentary approach, eschewing overt drama and subscribing fully to social realism. His camera observes without intrusion and the narrative is full of misdirection.
Many of the supporting cast aren’t even actors, while Dave Johns as Daniel and Hayley Squires as Katie are superb, giving natural performances. It isn’t just an anti-austerity, political flag-waving film; Daniel and Katie form a friendship that feels as potentially real as anything else. Dave is utterly convincing as a genuinely lovely bloke with a wicked sense of humour. It’s sad to see Daniel’s optimism worn down, but exhilarating when he stands up to the system. Hayley perhaps had the tougher role; the sneaky narrative diverts attention and yet the effect on her is more immediate than that on Daniel, because she’s struggling from the first moment. It’s a powerful and deeply affecting film anyway, but no more so than in the desperately moving food bank scene. And that isn’t Katie’s only low moment. Meanwhile Daniel spends a good chunk of the film bemused at having to deal with these idiots. Any moment now, they’ll realise there’s been a cock-up. Won’t they?
The people he comes up against are mainly on the end of a phone or manning the Job Centre and wouldn’t be out of place in Ricky Gervais’ The Office. They make you want to claw your eyes out and they act like they’re playing a game; assassins armed with biros. Are they real? It doesn’t matter. We know the system allows them to exist and so they are possible. On the commentary, Paul Laverty gives enough examples of the stories that inspired the film to suggest there is little exaggeration.
Perhaps Daniel and Katie are themselves a collection of anecdotes, but to be blunt, only one event has to ring true to condemn the welfare system. The arrogance of ignoring doctors; issue forms like a puzzle book; “digital by default”; denying help because someone’s a few minutes late; the bloody bedroom tax; treating people with such disrespect. It goes on and on and all of it is indefensible, certainly not by demonising all claimants because of the few that would exploit the system. That isn't addressed by the film, probably because in truth, there is less evidence for it whereas many of us know good people that were let down.
The situation is absurd and Dave gives Daniel a tic for putting his head in his hands in exasperation, often at the end of a scene. The film is a wink and a sliver away from being a farcical comedy, but instead, while Loach accuses the DWP of finding ways to push people away, his narrative has a feeling of being like a whirlpool, tugging people into impossible situations from which they cannot escape. Oddly, watching Daniel and Katie dealing with the Job Centre reminded me of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, except the asylum in this case laugh as they don’t have to lock up their patients and can kick them back into the world, knowing they have to come back for more punishment. And there’s more than one Nurse Ratched.
It should be required viewing because while it might be set in Newcastle, this is your city too. Your country. But you already know if you recognise this story and like any film, you take from it what you bring to it. Some well-publicised critics bring ignorance because they don’t know the people in it. The last year has proved that people’s political views are typically entrenched and easily exploited and I, Daniel Blake is at once a reaction to that. If there is contrivance, it is to illustrate an important point that needs battering home and welding in place with a battle-cry. Politics change, people don’t. There will always be victims of some kind, but that there are hungry and dispossessed treated with such disrespect is scandalous. Perhaps it is fair to say, as a film, you can take issue with who are represented as villains or that extremes are emphasised, but there is no such ambiguity in morals. The veracity of the truth cannot be disputed at some level, therefore the film’s intentions are true, honest and necessary.
For such a distressing subject, I, Daniel Blake is always passionate and in turns rousing, uplifting and profoundly moving. Laugh out loud funny in places too, largely thanks to Dave Johns wonderfully open performance, while Hayley Squires quietly breaks your heart. I’ve haven’t enjoyed being made so angry since Vittorio De Sica lost a bike in Rome; it is a fierce film with an honest spirit and should be seen just as important to modern Britain as Bicycle Thieves was to post-war Italy. Of course, Ken Loach has form in this area and Kes as one example holds up as a brilliant drama, but one of its time. Let’s hope his new film dates quickly and in the future can also be seen primarily for the masterful film production. Not as it is now. Not as the shameful indictment of how the UK continues to treat it’s impoverished and vulnerable.
Befitting the entire approach, the photography by Robbie Ryan (I Am Not A Serial Killer) is unassuming and documentary like. Real people in real locations (including that food bank). It would be easy to make it look bleak and follow typical movie anachronisms like damp, bleak weather, but we see an honest, modern and vibrant Newcastle instead. A life just out of reach for for Daniel and Katie. That comes to a head when Daniel literally forces the general public to take notice! The Blu-Ray transfer is suitably bright and consistent, full of depth.
This is a film that doesn’t want to draw attention to itself and yet it’s a brilliant production. The audio is a case in point, full of environmental detail, especially in crowds. Sometimes the central dialogue is almost lost to those surrounding them, again in the sense of a documentary. The surround sound track perfectly recreates these very real locations. Scenes such as that in the library are therefore even more convincing.
The film will be available on iPlayer on the same day as the Blu-Ray’s release, so why pay for it? Not for the menu, that’s for sure. It takes an age to load while playing a late scene from the film, which is confusing and almost qualifies as a spoiler! But actually, the extras really expand on the main feature, so it’s worth considering.
Audio Commentary with Director Ken Loach and Screenwriter Paul Laverty - This is a brilliant listen, addressing the reaction to the film as much as the production. Both Ken and Paul are in good humour as they relate the inspiration and anecdotes. Stories about real people, some in worse situations than the characters in the film, hit you one after another like a wave; and of course, you possibly know some yourself already. Ken also has several digs at the Government and we’d be disappointed if he didn’t. MP Damien Green really should learn that complaining about a film in Parliament is simply going to bring more attention to that film and his own failings in his responsibility to the DWP.
Deleted Scenes (7m) - The nature of the production means there was bound to be a few deleted scenes. They’re worth seeing because it’s more of the same. They will simply have been cut for time.
How To Make A Ken Loach Film (38m) - A fly-on-the-wall look at Ken’s method and interviews with the cast and crew. It’s a great watch because Ken is such a genuine man and especially good with the two kids. Plus there are more jaw-dropping moments, such as Hayley Squires trying to take notes while a lady from the Job Centre explains one of their strange processes!
Loach says that police can play parts in film, but Job Centre staff can’t. A credit at the end of the film thanks people who helped them in the DWP, but that they must stay anonymous. Why is it so secretive? Loach voices the idea of conspiracy, which is a dramatic claim, but one that has substance that he admirably keeps out of the film.