I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach, director
Paul Laverty, script
Starring: Dave Johns (Daniel Blake), Hayley Squires (Kate),
Dylan McKiernan (Dylan) Briana Shann (Daisy)
As I, Daniel Blake, begins we only hear voices. A woman, quite officious, sounds increasingly annoyed with a man who is speaking with a Geordie accent. She’s a self-styled “medical professional” and wants this Newcastle native to answer the questions put to him in a polite, almost downtrodden manner. He’s recovering from a heart attack, can’t work and has recently lost his wife. We never see the woman but we do see the man, who makes fun of her and is aggressively humorous about the silly nature of bureaucracy. His name is Daniel Blake and he’ll discover that the system is now completely weighted against him. Nowadays, the bastards can grind you down.
It’s contemporary England where the remnants of a humanist socialist state is barely functioning after being hollowed out repeatedly since the Thatcher years. What was an attempt to construct a society that would care for the poor, elderly and sick has long been rendered nearly useless. The rhetoric is there but the reality is that hard working British people like Daniel Blake are often treated terribly by a system that is nearly dysfunctional.
The old-style leftist writing and directing team of Paul Laverty and Ken Loach, who have created such incisive political dramas as My Name is Joe (1998), Bread and Roses (200), The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), Route Irish (2010) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014) has scored its biggest success yet with I, Daniel Blake. The film has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, best British Film at the British Film Awards and prizes at Vancouver, San Sebastian, Stockholm, Locarno, the European Film Awards and the Cesars.
They’ve created a great character in Daniel Blake, who is played effectively by Daniel Johns. Blake is a joiner (a step up from a carpenter) whose heart attack has made it impossible for him to work. Thanks to the “medical professional,” who was doubtless annoyed at the uppity Blake, he has been deemed capable of working and denied his employment benefits. In scene after Kafka-esque scene, Daniel Blake is made to stand in endless lines, fill out forms via computers (which he has never been trained to do) and have meetings with heartless officials who insist that he kowtow to the system.
During one of these frustrating experiences, Blake meets Kate (a terrific Hayley Squires), a young Londoner who has been transferred to Newcastle with her two children because there are so few homes left for impoverished cases in the capital. The 59-year-old Blake takes to them as a surrogate father might: he champions Kate, who has poor office skills but is clearly someone who means well and is a great mother.
Though there are scenes of humour and tenderness in the film, Loach and Laverty are more concerned about making a case out of the injustice being brought to the Kates and Daniels of Great Britain. We’re made to see the sort of humiliation that can be brought to bear on good people who find themselves without work. Though we’re not brought back to Dickens’ time and the circumstances aren’t quite as vile as those depicted in Bleak House, Loach and Laverty do make one feel the justified anger of working class Brits who are once again being diminished in their own society.
I, Daniel Blake is a terrific film. In the age of Donald Trump and Theresa May, it’s a must-see, even if we’re lucky enough to still have a Trudeau in office.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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