I, Daniel Blake - Cannes Film Festival 2016 Review
Fifty years ago, Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home denounced the astoundingly dire treatment of the poor by the British state. There was no safety net. At the time, the television film provoked such uproar that it led to the creation of the homelessness charity Crisis.
This year, the director brings to Cannes the excellent and intimate I, Daniel Blake. An unapologetic indictment of the UK’s Conservative-dominated government of the last six years, the film shows that little has really changed since the 1960s - except perhaps the jargon surrounding social provision.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a joiner and a carpenter who finds himself unfit to work due to a heart attack. Having lost his wife to cancer a few years ago, and with no children, he is alone - though surrounded by friendly neighbours and co-workers.
While his doctor, physiotherapist and surgeon are adamant - he must rest, for several months - the state does not agree. A health-care professional, from a subcontracted American multi-national, evaluates his case on a point scale. He doesn’t achieve the needed score, and as a result, is declared fit to work and denied Employment and Support allowance. Therein begins Dan's Kafkaesque battle to obtain from the state enough income to survive.
Dan is an entirely likeable, decent sort of guy. He’s caring and helpful to his friends; eager to get back to work; decent and polite to strangers. This is first request for financial aid. He is met with none of the same courtesy from the anxious rule-sticklers of the jobcentre and other various government offices. The conversations range from the hilarious to the harrowing. He is asked if he is able to put a hat on his head as part of an evaluation; someone threatens to sanction him (the halting of jobseeker’s allowance payments for a month or more) when he refuses to attend a CV workshop.
Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty are careful to include poverty’s new, modern, iterations. There is the uncertainty of zero-hour contracts, which Dan’s young neighbour suffers from; the multiplication of food banks, used also by many people who are working but can’t make ends meet; or the jobcentre employees who are reprimanded when they show themselves to be too helpful, or too humane. While not shown explicitly in the film, Laverty and Loach’s sources at the Department for Work and Pensions have confirmed that jobcentre staff are expected to hand out a given number of sanctions - and are sent on a ‘Personal Improvement Plan’ if they fail to meet these implicit targets. Then of course, there’s all the jargon which dehumanises the process further - service user, customer, client, claimant, digital by default...
The story also has its brighter spots. Dan befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mum of two who has just moved to Newcastle from London (the council could only offer her housing hundreds of miles away from her family and hometown). Their relationship becomes much like that of a father and daughter - with the same emotional potency.
Katie’s case also serves as sharp contrast to Dan’s - sanctioned for being late to a jobcentre appointment (she got lost in the unfamiliar town) she has no money, and knows she must do come what may so that she and her kids can survive. Where Dan can grimly decide to wither in defiance, Katie has no such choice.
Squires and Johns are both outstanding. Johns pitches just right among good-natured common sense, justified anger, and growing helplessness. Squires shows Katie as convincingly brave, firmly resolved and yet vulnerable - and entirely devoid of self-pity.
If the film, at the very end, flirts with the over-dramatic (the timing of its climax is a little too convenient), it’s easily forgiven. Some scenes tear the heart to shreds. There’s a breakdown at the food bank, in which Squires is truly superb; and a beautiful scene in which Dan speaks of his late wife - neither shielding the difficulties at the core of their marriage, nor his grief.
Loach directs with subtlety; the photography is in the palettes of greys and greens, emphasising shadows; the soundtrack bare and discreet.
I, Daniel Blake is a must-see - a quiet and powerful counterpart to the plethora of reality TV shows, and a political discourse, which judges and condemns the poor.
Marion Koob is The Digital Fix’s Cinema Editor. She will be tweeting throughout the festival @marionkoob.