I, DANIEL BLAKE. Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann. Directed by Ken Loach. 101 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language).
Before retiring in 2014, director Ken Loach is known for developing critiques of social issues through his work. He made his return a year later after a conservative British government was elected, and reuniting with his regular collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, he has returned with a clear and burning agenda. His first film back is an exploration of the different ways that life and the government and even capitalism to an extent can throw good people down, and then conspire to keep them there.
Political debates about welfare often boil down to two divergent views; that of the rationalist, who says that rules and order must be enforced to ensure proper procedure and economic sustainability, versus that of the humanist, who would give every individual in need what they require to get by. In ‘I, Daniel Blake’, the struggles of the titular Daniel against an unnavigable and unfair British welfare system strike a compelling blow to the rationalist’s argument, its quiet, observational style snowballing into a roar of dissatisfaction and rebellion.
We hear Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) before we see him, immersing us into the constricted view of telephone operators at the benefits centre he frequents in Newcastle. Their conversation is terse but humorous – Daniel is sick of answering the same questions ad nauseum, particularly when the response of the centre’s ‘healthcare professional’ conflicts with that of his own doctor. Daniel is a joiner by trade, but recently suffered from a heart attack whilst up on some scaffolding, and has been told by his cardiologist that he is not to return to work until his heart’s flow returns to an acceptable level. Despite this, his ability to tick menial tasks off the benefit centre’s prescribed universal list (banalities like ‘Are you able to raise your hands above your head, as if to put on a hat?’ and so on) deems him ineligible for Employment and Support Allowance. Daniel’s not the sort of man to have income insurance – a widower without much book education and a small apartment – so he is faced with a catch-22. He can return to work (at great risk to his health) or fulfil the mandatory requirements for weekly job searches to qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance (despite having to turn down any job he is offered, thanks to his heart).
If this isn’t bad enough, any recourse that Daniel pursues to have the decision reviewed turns up further obstacles – one-hour-plus holding queues in the government’s call centre, digital forms and online applications impenetrable to an old timer who is ‘pencil by default’, appeal processes which seem to finish where they started without progression. Daniel’s endless red tape brings his path across that of impoverished single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), whom he overhears arguing with a caseworker one morning in the benefits centre, her two young kids, Daisy (Briana Shane) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan), in tow. After he stands up for her, they are all escorted out by security, and Daniel walks them back to their state housing. Poking about, Daniel notices the myriad things around their little home that need fixing, and returns a few days later with his tools. Thus begins a touching friendship between Daniel and the young family, and watching him and Katie give each other all that they can despite having so little is deeply affecting.
Dave Johns gives a seamless performance as Daniel, and I was never able to pick where the actor finished and the role began. Of course, this being his first feature film helps create this illusion (as does cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s matter of fact lensing), but Johns brings a humanity to the role that bubbles quietly beneath his gentle but rugged exterior. His relationship with young neighbour China (Kema Sikazwe) and China’s pal Piper (Steven Richens) – who have concocted a get-rich-quick scheme together – is part brotherly banter, part fatherly concern, both elements filtered through Johns’ performance. His background in comedy comes through in several much-needed, exasperated punchlines, and his Geordie accent lingers long after the credits.
Similar praise goes to Hayley Squires, whose insurmountable struggle to maintain dignity in the face of her daily obstacles is shockingly emotive. Squires looks perennially exhausted, almost eroded away, even when sharing a brighter moment. When she insists that Daniel stay at their house for dinner, despite both knowing that there isn’t enough to go around, your heart will crack. It will downright shatter later, as she finally comes undone when collecting donated foodstuffs from a food bank. Her two kids are terrific as well, and give very natural performances as youngsters in a difficult position.
Winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ arrived in cinemas with lofty expectations. The Jury President this year was none other than Australian film royalty George Miller (director of the ‘Mad Max’ films). It may not be stylistically daring, but its stunning humanity will floor even the most rational audiences. Consider the expectations met then.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 17.