Film Reviews, Long Review

I, Daniel Blake (2016)


In these dark times, when it feels as if empathy is in shorter supply than ever, when anger is directed not at the forces of power but at the innocent and helpless, when community is a passé word, we need the cinema more than ever. We need people like Ken Loach. We need humour and levity. We need rage. We need rage directed productively. We need to speak out, louder and louder against injustice and inequality. We need films like I, Daniel Blake.

I’m not ashamed to say it; I, Daniel Blake hit me hard, more than once. The last few years have not been kind to many people in Britain, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, what with leaving the EU and the election of scum to US President and hard-right Tory in power here. I would like to know how Loach finds the energy to keep fighting. The same goes for people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. They are all over 60. Loach is 80 now. How do they carry on, after every setback, after every brick wall hit, after every hoop jumped? I have nothing but respect and admiration for them, but I wonder where they find the will to keep going, because I would just snap. I’m already close. I’m 22 and all I sense is hopelessness and impending loss. I, Daniel Blake is a reaction against that.

How do you fight a system that sets out to destroy you? This is one of the questions that the film seeks to pose. It can apply both to its titular character, played by Dave Johns, as he battles against the obtuse and maddeningly slow appeals procedure for welfare in the UK, after a heart attack rules him unable to work, and on a wider scale to capitalism as a whole. Capitalism seeks only to consume and destroy. Once Daniel Blake’s worth as a worker has gone—in this case, his skills as a carpenter—he is to be left to the dogs. The system is designed to warp out humanity, empathy, and understanding. The only knowledge it has is quotas met and boxes ticked. The humans operating it have no say it what they’re doing.

This is the same psychological process by which ordinary Germans became complicit in the Holocaust by simply scheduling train timetables or shifting units. That’s no facetious comparison. It’s on a smaller scale, but the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram Experiment both speak to the capacity of normal human beings for torture if a system is designed in such a way. The old welfare system in the UK, never perfect but at least functional, has been changed by the Conservatives in such a way that all the cogs within it are designed to reduce humane, emphatic judgement but yet retain the complicity of humans. Without someone to work the machine, the machine doesn’t work.

The logical solution may well be do deliberately do a bad job, but the system has been designed as such that a job is a necessity in Britain today. Those without them are reduced to statistics and box-ticking exercises, their humanity chipped away at. Those with the jobs are goaded gently, subversively, into the narrative, where the jobless as dehumanised, the ‘Other’ which needs to be kept at the doors. The very nature of capitalism’s success, divide and rule. Were one to fight against its tactics with whatever tools come to hand, it would fall quickly, but the nature of it is such that, until education catches up, changes will only ever be temporarily-won battles. In the UK it’s too much to ask of most people to be 100% politically engaged; most of us are otherwise comfortable enough not to risk it all, and on some level I don’t blame them. The class divide is such in the UK that just enough people have always been content with their lot. So it goes, until it doesn’t.

I, Daniel Blake may not have the political nuance of some of Ken Loach’s other work, particularly those such as his previous Palme D’or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley (both of which are truly deserved, as is Loach’s ascension to the rare pantheon of directors with two Palmes to their name), or Land and Freedom, or a documentary like The Spirit of ’45. Instead it is an appeal to the heart, not the head. The standard criticism of Loach is that his films are didactic and polemical, but that is the criticism of lazy people who can barely countenance the prospect of a film whose politics are different from their own.

One look at the drama of I Daniel Blake betrays that notion, because it shows Loach as simply a brilliant director of drama. It is apparent in the small details; such as when Daniel (Dave Johns, nominally a comic, but evidently a superb dramatic actor) shows Katie (an equally brilliant Hayley Squires) some DIY tips for heating up a run-down council estate home with plant pots, candles, and bubble-wrap; there’s the relationship between Daniel and his next-door neighbour, which, in more melodramatic hands might be wrung out to expound on generational and racial divides, but here it is a genuine neighbourly relationship, with minor quibbles set aside for communal solidity; then the already much-written about food bank scene, which I won’t repeat details about here, but it’s safe to say that the balance Loach strikes here between offering his characters dignity and self-respect against the reality of their situation is perfectly played. It could have been poverty-porn, but the difference is that Loach has no desire to wallow in his subjects’ misery. He wants to change it for the better.

Perhaps there is one minor quibble in Loach’s otherwise masterful film, and that is the almost rosy view of working-class solidarity the film takes. It is perhaps somewhat naïve; with the spread of UKIP and far-right beliefs amongst the disadvantaged in both Britain and the wider Western world, it’s apparent that the working class is not some noble, suffering, undifferentiated entity all sticking together. Granted, the spread of such beliefs is directly tied to the inability of the left to answer to the basic loss of material quality of living amongst those at the bottom rung of our society—although this rise is partially tied to what I genuinely believe is a long-term, institutional racism buried deeply within the psyche of Britons; this truly is one of the most racist countries I’ve ever encountered, the difference being that the racists here are very good at hiding, and until people admit that cancer is still truly alive in the country it will still be swept under the rug—but I still think that ultimately, I, Daniel Blake leans a bit too heavily on such a rosy view of community solidarity. Solidarity is a beautiful thing, but it is hard-won and not easily obtained.

But then, yet again, as I said, this film is a letter to the heart, not the head. And what a heart it has. It is vital, crucial filmmaking, full of rage, full of fury, full of flames, against the deep-rooted injustices of the British political landscape. That it also filled with dignity, moments of bleak humour, and levity, makes it nothing short of a masterpiece, with Loach and his cast and crew fully deserving of their accolades. That it’s also been one of the most talked UK films of recent years is a sure sign that maybe, just maybe, I, Daniel Blake may achieve that greatest of all artistic accolades: the capacity to enact true change. May the film one day look irrelevant, and may it live long in the memory.


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