I know something of the welfare system in this country, an often infuriating loop-the-loop, procedures and forms to fill out over basic human rights and common sense reasoning. The structure is there for a reason though, to process entitlement, clamp down on fraud, and blah blah, but there are many who get caught in the cross-fire of the political ping-pong. Ken Loach’s overwhelming I, Daniel Blake zeros in on this very premise, watching a man with decency and willingness be dragged from pillar to post of the benefits systems. Some of the interactions between these regular people and members of the civil service in the film may appear harsh and disobliging, but it all rings very familiar alarm bells, this could well be a documentary that would be too-close-to-home for some.
Loach, along with screenwriter Paul Laverty, weave together a really exposing, under-the-surface view on this very real predicament. At ground level, we experience these unfortunate characters mistreated and all-too-easily dismissed. And it’s so effortlessly affecting at times, nothing is forced down your throat, I was feeling genuinely sad emotions. As you rally for these people, there are moments of personal euphoria too, in particular when Daniel (Dave Johns) witnesses some rather unhelpful treatment of single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children, he exclaims his disgust with the tax-paying system, getting Katie to the front of the queue for signing on. It’s a small cry for victory given the discourse, and honestly I wanted to get up and applaud myself. Later, Katie’s face of genuine gratitude when Daniel tells her he’ll sort the place out for her is a lovely little moment you could miss if you’re not paying attention.
I, Daniel Blake is an important film, very important, but as a film telling a story (of real life) this is an assuredly handed picture, developing characters so authentic, and adding smidgens of dramatization at just the right temperature. There’s a melancholic thread throughout, a familiar scope of the impoverished human landscape, but a sense of hope and drive to work, or feed your kids, in spite of the obstacles. Being so hungry you have to open a tin and stuff your face in a food bank (one example of how heart-breakingly good Squires is here); not being able to use a computer, everything is “online by default” now; applying for sickness benefit quickly turning into an enduring, deeply frustrating rigmarole – all because the state fails to connect the dots or paint by numbers. Maybe for the subtext, not for all tastes, but it has touched many – including the jury at Cannes last year where the film was awarded the Palme d’Or.