We take a look at Ken Loach’s timely and affecting film…
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a joiner, perhaps in his sixties or seventies. Before the film opens, he suffers a heart attack and is advised by his doctor not to return to work until he has his health back. That’s nothing to worry about, you might think, but after an interview with someone who insistently refers to herself as a “healthcare professional”, he is deemed fit to return to work. This presents him with a problem, as his doctors remain insistent that he rest before doing so. He attempts to appeal the decision, but finds himself blocked at every turn by an unfeeling bureaucracy, staffed by drones who all sound alike due to their use of the same governmental Newspeak. Along the way he meets a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is in a similar predicament, having moved up to Newcastle from London to avoid the homeless shelter.
As starvation snaps nearer and nearer at the heels of both, we see the devastating effects of poverty and the real fragility of the social safety net. It isn’t obvious, but many of us really are only a bad landlord, an unfortunate illness, a laying-off or some other similar combination of circumstances away from homelessness and joblessness. Instinctively, we assume that there are authorities out there just waiting to intervene and restore the balance of fairness. The reality is that the staff of the Department of Work & Pensions are workers like any other – just trying to do their job as best they can and keep the wolf from the door, like the rest of us, except in their case, keeping the wolf from the door requires giving out as many “sanctions” as they can. There are targets for this sort of thing, not sane ones based on individual circumstances, but absolute ones designed to drive up competition along the same logic used in sales departments.
Whether this makes you furious might well depend on your political alignment. But the film, Ken Loach’s latest, profitably avoids any overt politicising. Its story is thoroughly ordinary, and all the more tragic for the fact that the lives it bleakly surveys – of food banks, shoplifting, even prostitution – are the result of an entirely unremarkable set of circumstances. Here it gains from two very different, but equally human, lead performances. Hayley Squires is quietly desperate, barely holding herself together for her children’s sake. Dave Johns, who has a background in comedy, is warmer, using his sense of humour as a guide in navigating a world of arbitrary cruelty. “Kafkaesque” is the standard term for labyrinthine, faceless bureaucracies, but Kafka’s world was a nightmare, a paranoid fantasy, whereas what Loach portrays will be all too familiar to many. I’ve been on unemployment benefits myself in the past, and the experience is not pleasant, though it will depend to a large extent on how sympathetic a supervisor one finds oneself paired with. Still, the film is entirely credible, and depressingly so.
I, Daniel Blake is now open in UK cinemas, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!