Since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, there has been a severe attack on the welfare system in the UK, mostly under the architecture of Ian Duncan Smith. Alongside this destruction of the welfare state we have been fed stories daily about how all people on benefits are scroungers, being too lazy or too stupid to get into work. All of this has created the greatest period of demonisation of the poor in modern British history. As a result, this is the perfect time for Ken Loach to come out of his retirement and make a film about the welfare system, hoping to change the system in the same way that his TV movie Cathy Come Home changed the homelessness law. This film has been cited by many figures in the media and government, including Labour leader Jerermy Corbyn, as being systematic of the welfare system, and described as a left wing fantasy by the Daily Mail and Ian Duncan Smith. For me, Loach has created a heartbreakingly honest film.The plot concerns Daniel Blake, a joiner recovering from a major heart attack who has been advised by his doctors that he cannot go back to work or he’ll risk another heart attack. However, he has enough day-to-day functions to be found fit to work by the Department of Work and Pensions and the company they outsource their assessments to meaning that Blake is not entitled to Employment Support Allowance but can only apply for Job Seeker’s Allowance, meaning that he has to show himself applying for jobs that he cannot take using systems that, due to his lack of technological understanding, he cannot use. During this, he meets Katie, a single mum who has been forced to move out of a homeless hostel in London and up to Newcastle as there’s no accommodation for her in London and she has just been placed on sanctions after getting lost on her way to the Job Centre. Together they have to deal with the poverty they face and the insane bureaucracy at the centre of it. When I say the film focuses on the insane bureaucracy of the DWP I mean insane. The system at the heart of the DWP makes the system in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil look competent. The entire system is online which makes it harder for Blake who has never used a computer before in his life, phone calls take close to 2 hours to be answered and the whole reason why Blake cannot get his appeal in early is because he got the letter informing him that he’s been denied ESA before the phone call. The whole system is completely messed up and, from stories I’ve heard about the system, completely true to life. Elements of the demonisation of the poor also come into play through Blake’s story as he has to give his CV out to people for jobs (this also goes into the uncaring nature of the DWP as Blake is castigated for using a handwritten CV and not getting receipts from people he gave his CV to) and when he has to tell them he can’t take them because of his illness and has only been giving out his CV to claim JSA he’s labelled a scrounger. As bad as Blake’s story is, it’s nothing compared to Katie’s. Due to the sanctions placed on her she cannot afford enough food for her and her children meaning that she lets herself starve so her children can eat, culminating in a scene at a food bank where, severely weak from hunger, she opens up a tin of baked beans and eats them with her bare hands, just to stop the hunger pains. It’s a scene that fills you with anger, and that’s just the least of it, Katie ending up being forced into prostitution so she can pay for school shoes for her daughter.
That said, even though the film makes you feel heartbroken and angry, there is still a sense of lightness and respect for the working class by Ken Loach. Daniel Blake is an incredibly likeable character, doing woodwork and listening to the shipping forecast at night, having a great relationship with Katie’s kids, especially her son who has had difficulty connecting with people, Blake is just a nice person, which makes it harder to see how he’s pushed around by the government. This is mainly due to an excellent performance by Dave Johns, doing a great job at showing the humour Blake feels, his exasperation at the bureaucracy feels genuine and the chemistry he has with the other members of the cast is excellent. Katie is also a good person, wanting to do Open University courses to give herself a better chance for a job in the future and doing everything she can to give her kids a decent life, even in the harsh circumstances she finds herself in. All of this being presented by an incredible performance by Hayley Squires, making you feel the pain that Katie feels over everything forced upon her, along with the care she has for her kids. There are also a lot of great lighthearted moments in the film, many of these revolving around Blake’s next door neighbour China, his attempt to set up a business selling counterfeit trainers and his video calls/attempts to help out Blake with the internet. There’s also a great scene, the one on the poster, with Blake spray-painting his demand for an appeal and his calls to change the music for the DWP phone line on the side of a job centre, the members of the public nearby cheering in support of Blake against the DWP. This is a brilliant scene and the show of solidarity by the other citizens of Newcastle towards Blake is heartwarming, in a film that’s mostly heartbreaking.
Overall, I, Daniel Blake is one of the best films of the year and a high-point in the career of Ken Loach. This is a film that will make you angry but it being anything else would distract from the point. The mix of the heartwarming characters of Daniel and Katie, with the brutal, unsympathetic system of the DWP that hundreds of thousands of people go through every day, makes you understand what people on welfare go through better than any newspaper article or documentary. Hopefully this film can inspire change the way Cathy Come Home did.
My Rating: 5/5