The temptation to just throw this review together, right off the bat, straight after seeing I, Daniel Blake, was admittedly huge. It’s such an emotionally-charged film; a call to arms if you will. The fact that I didn’t, and the fact that much mud-slinging seems to have ensued between director Ken Loach and some of the press ever since, potentially could have coloured my opinion.
But it hasn’t, and quite frankly it couldn’t.
The UK benefits system was put in place as a safety net for those who truly needed it, but successive cuts in its funding, together with a myriad of other contributory factors, have resulted in a fundamentally flawed system which is evidently no longer up to the job – a point that apparently so enraged director Ken Loach, it drove him out of retirement to make a film about it.
I, Daniel Blake is a harsh and damning depiction of welfare Britain in these times of such bitter hardship, repackaged as the rather more palatable ‘austerity.’
Arguably, nowhere is austerity felt so keenly than in the bubble that is London; a city in which vast swathes of admittedly unsightly social housing are now routinely bull-dozered to make way for pristine new private housing developments in which only the truly moneyed can afford to live, despite the nonsense concept of so called ‘affordable housing.’
The displaced tenants from said social housing are then re-homed (if they’re lucky), far and away from where they’d previously been; away from their work, away from their family, their circles of friends and so on.
One victim of such ‘progress’ is Londoner and single mother of two, Katie (the excellent Hayley Squires), who, incredibly, owing to the paucity of available social housing in or close to London, finds herself relocated to Newcastle.
Here, she meets Daniel Blake (a truly superb turn from Dave Johns).
Whilst attempting to sign-on, Katie rather harshly falls victim to the benefits system’s zero tolerance policy on appointment tardiness, leaving her and her young family, new council house-aside, effectively destitute. Daniel, a man no stranger himself to being on the receiving end of unjust decisions by the state, attempts to step in and reason with the staff, but it’s all to no avail.
Daniel’s heart condition has been preventing him from working, much to his frustration. Mercifully, until recently it has not been a financial burden to him thanks to sickness benefit payments, but following a reassessment of his circumstances, such an ailment is no longer deemed sufficient to keep him from working. Yes, thanks to the newly implemented sickness benefits points system, Daniel Blake, in the eyes of the state at least, is fit to work.
In spite of such adversity, Daniel and Katie strike up a strong bond of friendship. Daniel, a carpenter by trade, is only too happy to fix up Katie’s new council house for her and to help her and her young family to settle into the area, something she is most grateful for.
It’s very much an ‘us against the world’ scenario that develops, and with each other’s support and dependability, there seems to at least be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel for them all.
This, however, is twenty-first century Britain…
On one level, I, Daniel Blake, when broken down into its constituent parts, is a bit of a tick-box exercise, addressing one by one the faults and inadequacies of a government whose austere policies have led to such devastating poverty and hardship amongst Britain’s working classes. But that very much fails to take into account the fact that Ken Loach’s film, serving as something of a totem to his own personal crusade against such injustices, is a work of immense power and impact.
I, Daniel Blake depicts lives that are driven through sheer desperation to make decisions and engage in activities which bring them to the point of utter personal shame and mental fragility. Indeed, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by one particular set of events that unfold in a food bank.
Perhaps most soul-destroying of all though is Daniel’s own story. A man entering into the twilight years of his life, still very much wanting to work, yet beginning to resign himself to the fact that due to his deteriorating health, probably will not do so again.
He is one of a generation of skilled manual workers that have always relied upon their good health to make their living. Their’s is a life that requires little or no adaptation to technology, largely unaware of its substantial impact upon modern life. However, with the government’s insistence that he must now find work, but unable to work any longer within his trade of choice, Daniel suddenly discovers that he is one of Britain’s forgotten people.
Computer illiterate and out of touch with modern practices and techniques, despite the attempts of the younger generation to help him out, Daniel remains something of a fish out of water. Largely invisible and irrelevant within today’s job market, he is forced to jump through hoops by the state in order to be deemed worthy of receiving his paltry fortnightly hand-out.
Whereas the youth, with age on their side, will find ways to roll with the punches, adjusting and adapting to their predicament as they go, through both an inability and reluctance to do so, Daniel struggles to implement the necessary changes into his life, and his is therefore a resigned, steady decline into both poverty and depression.
I, Daniel Blake is bleak viewing yet profoundly moving, punctuated by genuinely heart-warming displays of humanity and gritty northern gallows humour; all in the face of such a hamstrung and at times appallingly inadequate system.
Of course, no-one is pretending that the current government didn’t find themselves with a considerable financial deficit to address. No-one is pretending that there aren’t some that cheat and ‘play’ the system. No-one is under any illusions that the country’s ever expanding population and an open door immigration policy hasn’t put a considerable strain on the welfare system, and no-one is expecting money to be magic’d out of thin air in order to plug the considerable holes in the welfare budget.
But to use such excuses as a reason not to address this nation’s alarmingly high levels of poverty and an under-funded welfare system, is both immoral, and completely misses the point.
We live in a deeply unjust class system, to state the bleedin’ obvious. A system which seems hell-bent on eliminating the middle classes, leaving instead two very disparate ways of life. A land of haves and have-nots. It’s arguably always been this way – to an extent at least – but the exaggerated nature of the present chasm between the two, and the rapidly diminishing options available to us to do something about it, is truly disturbing.
More than anything though, we live in a system which, from top to bottom, simply does not have the interests and wellbeing of its people – ALL of its people – as its primary focus.
And that is a truly damning indictment of a morally bankrupt, deeply troubled society that has been created, and in which we live.