I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s first film since his supposed retirement in 2014, is the fiery auteur’s first look at the human cost of post-crash Tory Britain. Unsurprisingly, his assessment of the system is that is a bureaucratic hellscape built on cruelty. The Department of Work and Pensions refuses to give honest people the money they need to live, and their staff are consistently bemused that their anodyne talk of ‘decision-makers’ and rulebooks could possibly anger people on their last few pounds. It’s a film designed to infuriate, and does a fantastic job of it as hardworking Newcastle handyman Daniel Blake (played by comedian Dave Johns) struggles to navigate the harsh world of benefits after a heart attack.
This medical episode has left him to ill to work, according to his doctor, but the American firm hired to carry out the fit for work test think different. The ‘healthcare professional’ asks him inane questions that deliberately ignore the issue of his heart failure, so that he only scores 12 out of 15 ‘disability points’, not enough to claim a support allowance, forcing Daniel to attempt to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. As he’s bounced from DWP adviser to DWP adviser, none of whom can give him anything other than the most maddeningly unhelpful information, Loach makes it plain that this is a system specifically designed to force people into giving up hope.
Yet, Daniel Blake is far from an entirely depressing film. There are of course moments of deep sadness; Paul Laverty’s script is honest and compassionate, recognising, crucially, that sometimes it’s kindness that can most easily move one to tears. But it’s also this kindness, evident in every corner of the film, that keeps it from being a slog, alongside a warm sense of humour that allows for some minor, but cathartic, triumphs. At yet another fruitless DWP appointment, Daniel runs into Katie (Hayley Squires), who has recently moved up to Newcastle from London with her two kids (Brianna Shann and Dylan McKiernan).
Struggling to get by on the money they have, Katie’s family immediately have their benefits sanctioned after arriving late to a meeting thanks to being entirely unfamiliar with the city. Unable to sit by and watch a single mum’s life fall into pieces, Daniel starts helping them in any way he can. As soon as Daniel starts on this endeavour, Loach starts to show us kindnesses from all corners. Food bank staff entertain Katie’s kids with juice and biscuits, while an understanding store manager lets her off for shoplifting bathroom items. It all serves to effectively underline just how robotically evil the Tory state is, clearly laying out Loach’s furious and timely manifesto.
Notwithstanding its grand statements, Daniel Blake is a very small film and, as such, requires excellent performances at its heart to sell the reality of the situation. Johns is fantastic in the title role, and makes for a superb casting choice, his lack of star power allowing him to fit perfectly into this world. Hayley Squires is given a role with more obvious ups and downs, so doesn’t quite convince as completely as Johns, but it’s still a powerful piece of work, and the kids are utterly charming. As with the rest of the film, the acting is achingly human, adding depth and weight to a vital indictment of an awful system that we’re dangerously close to taking for granted.