I, Daniel Blake (2016)
I wasn’t planning on going to see I, Daniel Blake in fact I’m still not entirely sure why I did. Sure, it surprisingly took home this years glittering Palme d’Or, a perfect summation of anti-establishment firebrand Ken Loach’s lengthy career, but I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a lengthy diatribe against some of the deep-rooted social failures of the modern world. You only have to look at the front page of your particular news periodical of choice to be stricken with a deep and unyielding existential dread, a frantic howl at the way our country and the wider world seems to be lurching further and further into suicidal insanity, regardless of your position on the political spectrum and whether you read The Guardian or The Times, The Express or The Morning Star. Arrayed against the fragile prayers for a stable future there’s a new, more erratic Cold War, the slowly congealing Brexit economic holocaust, a pan Atlantic insane demagogue within grasp of the launch codes of a behemoth superpower, or just the overarching Sword of Damocles known as accelerating and inevitable climate catastrophe to reckon with. Have I cheered you up yet? No, well in a week the clocks back and it will be dark and cold when you get up in the morning and miserable and exhausting by the time you get home, and don’t for one second think that you can find any solace in the cinema, judging by this weeks oppressive entry.
To quickly summarize this is Ken Loach’s final acerbic assault on the neo-liberal agenda, an investigation of two characters caught on the serrated point of the politics of austerity, and a final eulogy on Thatcher’s mantra that ‘there is no such thing as society’ and we are all our own selfish, self-perpetuating drones. We first meet Daniel (stand-up comedian Daniel Johns), a bereaved geordie joiner whilst he is undergoing an absurd DwP assessment interview. He has recently suffered a heart attack, and has been strictly instructed by his doctors to on no account stress himself or engage in any strenuous activity, given his serious medical condition. Through a tangled web of bureaucracy a picture of a system that is intentionally designed to oppress and punish its citizens emerges. Through a genuine misunderstanding Daniel is caught in a twilight zone where he is supposedly not entitled to a social care system he has spent his entire adult life supporting, due to the new private sector outsourced rules and regulations which crush any challenge or sense of human decency. An altercation at the Job Centre between the frayed Katie (Hayley Squires – just brilliant), her two children and an officious DwP official brings her family into compassionate contact with Daniel – she has been decanted from London to Newcastle by the authorities due to the social housing crisis, and now has to raise, clothe and feed her family without the support structure of her wider family and friends, in an unfamiliar city while struggling to navigate the byzantine and cash-starved ‘support’ system. Slightly lonely, Daniel supports the struggling trio by fixing the utilities in her decrepit new home, doing some odd jobs, and offering some childcare support while Katie anxiously seeks a modicum of low-skilled employment, not realizing that his own financial position is becoming even more precarious despite his redoubled efforts to claim the assistance that as a 40 year rate paying citizen is legally and morally his.
Make no mistake, if you have anything of a molecule of compassion, or sense of equality and social equilibrium then this film will deeply upset you, it left me literally shaking in incandescent rage, all the more galling from learning that Loach actually toned the film down from some of the feedback he and his team have yielded from Department of Work & Pensions whistle-blowers. In terms of bleakness be warned, I Daniel Blake is like some anti-matter conflagration of a depressed Shane Meadows and Threads tearing a rift into a parallel dimension of desolation along the space-time continuum, it is relentless in its submerged fury, only occasionally leaved with a particularly British brand of observational humor. Loach is careful to show that the people caught in these situations are not the snarling working class skivers that the Daily Heil would have you believe, they are genuine people with pride and mouths to feed, struggling in a system which reduces them to numbers on a spreadsheet or cogs in a wheel, while the officials bark their robotic mantra of starvation sanctions for the mildest and mistaken infraction of the indecipherable rules. Mandy is shown anxiously pushing cards through peoples letterboxes and in newsagent’s windows in order to get any cleaning work, while Daniel yomps around Newcastle’s industrial estate to get any manual work which he can’t even accept, trapped in the unbelievable position of having to seek work he can’t take for medical reasons, wasting his, the States and the potential employers time in a grimly absurd limbo. Some of the plot turns seem a little contrived and fail to map to the overall agenda but these are small mis-steps when considered against the larger portrait of 2016 Britain – I’m still not sure why we dovetailed down Daniel’s neighbors and their entrepreneurial mission of importing trainers from China, other than a general point of how even young, energetic and ambitious members of the workforce are being forced into illegal areas by the prevalence of zero hour contracts and slave-wage commerce.
It is, however, also a film which excels in the smaller, more gentle details. The smallest acts of generosity or selflessness become incrementally intensified to the point of, showing a collective strength in a common humanity, with . Some supporters have suggested that the film should be projected on a loop against the side of the DwP’s Whitehall HQ, given its savage revelations. Me, I’d go one further. I’d suggest taking every single politician, every civil servant, and more importantly every outsourced, profit led contractor involved in the implementation of these policies and strap them down, Ludvico style, and play them a loop of the film to their excruciatingly prised open irises for about as long as it takes for a starving person trapped in the system to actually get a decision notice or an appeal to their sanction heard by an independent tribunal – so something akin to six to nine months. On the more technical front the output is vertite framed as you’d expect from Loach, a non-obtrusive camera which records the action at a respectful distance, utterly absent of any intrusive score and a indistinguishable blend of professional actors and actual people who operate in this roles, all igniting the work with a sense of furious authenticity. Unfortunately I have to urge you to avoid reviews and see this cold, as many critics seem to be gleefully and spoilerifically discussing one of the films most powerful scenes, debating whether or not it is fact one of the most powerful scenes of all genre or country produced in the past decade. That’s not hyperbole, the immediately notorious ‘food-bank’ sequence is just……it’s obliterating, it’s devastating, with more power and punch than the combined CGI production roster of Warner Brothers and Disney combined. In this perfectly observed and tempered moment and it’s aftermath Loach revitalizes the power of cinema to put you in the lives of other people, with an umbilical empathy to their plight, when I saw it there was a ripple of audible gasps from the audience which I’m told is replicated across numerous screening experiences all over the country. The ultimate accolade is this – I’ve written this review in a furious burst over maybe an hour to ninety minutes, which I hope proves how I, Daniel Blake gets deeply under the skin, in one of the most essential and electrifying films of the year;