Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a Newcastle carpenter in late middle age who has suffered an accident at work thanks to heart problems, and his doctor has decreed him unfit for work until his condition improves. Since he has no other income, he has to sign up for state benefits, but this may prove easier said than done thanks to the amount of hoops he has to figuratively jump through to achieve them, and as he has spent all his life in employment, being a skilled worker, he has no experience of the benefits world that he has been unceremoniously dropped into. He is still not a well man, and could do without the stress, but the monolithic process of applying and keeping his support does not seem designed to help anyone without a struggle...
Not many film directors manage to make one of their best works as they neared their eighties, but Ken Loach showed no sign of slowing down with I, Daniel Blake which was another collaboration between himself and Scottish writer Paul Laverty. It was a mark of how vital his abilities remained that this work not only proved controversial, but as presumably intended stirred up much debate as to the accuracy of what it depicted, torn from the headlines: was Britain in such a terrible state that its neediest citizens were being put through Hell because the reform of the benefits system had left them flailing through life that poverty was a significant part of? The Conservative Government had made those reforms one of their flagship policies, after all.
Did they know what they were doing? There was certainly billions being spent on sustaining the welfare state and we were continually told that huge amount of money was no longer tenable with the world going through the troubles it was, but perhaps the problem was that society was changing, the population were getting sicker and less well off as a result, and a more concerted effort to reform the national crisis that saw too many people trying to get too few jobs they hated anyway would have been better managed than this apparent punishment of what were happily being termed in both the media and the culture as scroungers. The scepticism that if you needed help you were basically not pulling your weight, or even outright lying, was a pernicious one.
Not only that, but extremely difficult to shake once the suspicion had been introduced, as Daniel discovers in a system that does not appear to have been designed with anyone in mind other than someone with managerial experience of form filling and legal rights. While some disputed Loach and Laverty's views, there were a troubling amount of others who would counter that opinion, having either witnessed similar situations or even been through them themselves, and Laverty had extensively researched his subject to be as accurate to the victims' experiences as possible. Daniel makes friends with a single mother Londoner, Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been forced out of her home to take a council house in Newcastle, and is, if anything, struggling more than he is, leading to the most vivid scenes as she has to visit a food bank or has no option but to debase herself for money.
You can tell there was a lot of righteous anger here, though the staff at the benefits offices were not all monsters, Ann (Kate Rutter) comes across as if she genuinely wants to help, and that was where the film's power stemmed from. It was not in the indignation that British citizens were enduring this kind of desperation, but the way that even in these circumstances there was a place for kindness, and indeed this was what gave us hope, that it was possible to care and that in itself would improve the lot of the disadvantaged. When Daniel finds himself hitting his head up against the brick wall of a system where medically he is unfit, but those who are meant to be providing for him simply do not believe those records, it is easy to feel his frustration, and not only because we feel if his wife had still been alive he would have someone close to him to assist. As it is, he must be the shoulder to cry on for Hayley, and as we see the less legitimate methods of making money where the legal means are letting you down (his neighbour, while a decent young man, is not doing himself any favours by using the black market), we admire Daniel for sticking with the official structure for so long, even as it lets him down. An important film to have an opinion on, agree with it or otherwise. Music by George Fenton.
[Entertainment One's DVD has a commentary from Loach and Laverty, a featurette about how to make a Loach film, and deleted scenes as extras.]