Sunday, 6 November 2016
Review: I, Daniel Blake (UK Cert 15)
Over his career, Ken Loach has never shied away from controversial subjects. From homelessness in Cathy Come Home, through to the Irish War of Independence in the Palme d'Or winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Loach is an uncompromising filmmaker who isn't afraid to tackle big issues head on. His latest target is the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the British welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged carpenter who is recovering from a massive heart attack and who has been declared 'fit for work' by the Department of Work and Pensions- despite his own doctors saying he isn't. This means his Employment Support Allowance is going to be stopped. Thus begins the bureaucratic nightmare of navigating the benefits system and the often frustratingly absurb manner in which the DWP operates- sanctioning people's benefits for being a few minutes late to sign on and robotically following the scripts. It would be laughable if it didn't literally mean the difference between life and death: Paul Laverty's script is based on case studies where seriously ill people have been declared 'fit for work' despite all medical evidence to the contrary.
Loach won his second Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival with this film. I would love to have seen the French journalists' reaction to the film (aside from the standing ovation, of course). Given that nearly all of the characters have very broad Geordie accents (and those that don't tend to have broad London accents), I wonder if they had to subtitle it?
Johns' performance is outstanding. By trade, Johns is a stand-up comedian but he's also a superb and very naturalistic dramatic actor. Blake's a genial kind of fella, the kind of bloke you'd be happy to go for a pint with. An analogue man in a digital world which leaves him all at sea (his frustration with having to do claims online is something that rings very true). He is a fundamentally good man caught in a dreadful scenario. He isn't a sponger, or a scrounger, or a benefit cheat (a fact that appears to have got the rightwing British press up in arms). His frustration at the intransigence of the system is writ large and wholly believable.
Hayley Squires is similarly great as Katie, a young mother who Daniel meets at the job centre as she gets sanctioned for being late to sign on. They strike up a friendship which is pleasingly free of any signs of romantic pressure. Katie is a woman on the edge, a mother who would do anything for her kids but who is slowly going under and who is forced into the unthinkable to survive. There's a heartbreaking moment where Katie goes to a foodbank that left me shaking.
The rest of the cast are all pretty good, with Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan impressing as Katie's children Daisy and Dylan (luckily avoiding being saccharine or too cutesy). There's also a nice turn by Kate Rutter as Ann, the one sympathetic and human voice at the JobCentre, who tries to help Blake and gets into hot water for it.
Loach never sensationalises the subjects in his films; he never needs to. For all those who criticise and say this is outlandish and unreal, I can tell you it isn't. It is chillingly real. Factual. Due to the inflexibility of the benefits system, the absurd run-around you get with them, the draconian rules, the ever-present threat of sanctions (meaning your money is either stopped or reduced), and the utter lack of humanity so many people who work for the DWP show, it's no wonder people have died. The only wonder really is that more haven't.
Loach described I, Daniel Blake as a film about the 'conscious cruelty' of the current government and I left the cinema with my mind racing. I was upset by what I'd just seen. I was depressed about the state of things. There but for the grace of whatever go we all. But most of all, I was angry. Angry that the current system has evolved into such a state that foodbanks are seen as the new normal. Angry that a government body can literally hold someone's life in their hands with little to no accountability. And angry at the lack of humanity being shown to people who deserve it.
So, thank you, Mr Loach. Thank you for making such a powerful, raw and honest film. And thank you for making me angry.
Rating: 5 out of 5