Winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or this year, activist director Ken Loach’s latest drama, I, Daniel Blake, is a reflection of who we are and our society today, and it will shake you to the core.

Director Ken Loach is known for his critically acclaimed hard-hitting kitchen sink dramas. I, Daniel Blake, is probably his most important work since the 1966 TV feature Cathy Come Home, which encouraged a national conversation about homelessness.

This time round his subject is the inequalities of austerity Britain, in particular, a bureaucratic system that dehumanises precisely those in most need of its help.

Daniel Blake (played with a down-to-earth warmth by comedian Dave Jones) is a 59-year old carpenter living in Newcastle recovering after a near-fatal heart attack. He’s psychologically sharp—though not clever enough to play the system in any way—and physically mobile, but his doctor’s told him he’s not fit for work yet.

I, Daniel Blake

The opening credits appear on an otherwise black screen over which we hear his disability and sickness benefit assessment being carried out. He’s asked whether he can lift his hands in the air, whether he can touch his head. Yes, he replies, increasingly frustrated by the assessor’s inability to deviate from the script in front of them: don’t they understand that it’s his heart that’s the problem?

Deemed able to work by this (medically unqualified) “healthcare professional”, he’s denied disability and sickness benefit. Thus begins a Kafkaesque struggle with the system as, with no sick pay from work, and no family to help him, jobseeker’s allowance is his only option. However, in order to receive this, he must be actively seeking employment, and able to prove that he’s spent 35 hours each week doing so.

Daniel’s an honest bloke so he does what he’s told. He tramps around the city’s various building sites and work yards handing out his handwritten CV (he’s also forced to attend an obligatory CV writing class, completely pointless in his line of work, one of word-of-mouth recommendations, but again there’s no wriggle-room as far as the Jobcentre is concerned), only to then have to turn down any offers he does get. For a man who’s clearly worked hard all his life and prides himself on his reliability and trustworthiness, it’s infuriating and humiliating.

Loach has no qualms about depicting the full tedium of the various processes at work here, especially when it comes to Daniel’s increasingly maddening interactions with government employees. The refrain—“the decision-maker will be in touch”—runs through the film, conjuring images of the love child of Orwell’s Big Brother and the office worker in Little Britain whose answer is always “computer says no”. Daniel’s attempts to fill in electronic application forms is yet another hurdle, reminding us that just because something’s online doesn’t mean it’s accessible to all.

 

 

“Watching this both broke my heart and shamed me to my core"

 

 

If Daniel stands for an older generation the system isn’t designed to helpfully serve, 20-something single mother Katie (a brilliantly raw performance by Hayley Squires), who crosses paths with Daniel in a chance encounter at the Jobcentre, represents a younger generation slipping between the cracks.

Recently arrived in Newcastle—the only city that could offer her and her children, Daisy and Dylan, a council flat, even though it’s 300 miles away from their home in London—Katie is completely cut-off from the support network she had around her. She does her best to remain upbeat on phone calls to her mum, but poverty and loneliness are grinding her down.

I, Daniel Blake

Daniel might well be the film’s hero, but it’s Katie to whom Loach gives the powerful central scene through her collapse at a food bank. Watching this both broke my heart and shamed me to my core: it’s required viewing for anyone who’s lucky enough to have never been brought so low.

To call Katie and Daniel fellow lost souls might be poetic, but it’s completely at odds with Loach’s mission. I, Daniel Blake is not an aesthetic project but a political one, and Loach is not an objective observer but an activist filmmaker. He’d be the first to stand up in solidarity with Daniel when, finally losing his cool, our hero stages a single-handed protest outside the Jobcentre before being carted away by the police.

Indeed, in many ways, this is a film that defies the very notion of a critical response. It’s the criticism: a scorching attack on a country that doesn’t look after those in need.  

 

Browse our collection of Ken Loach films on DVD

I, Daniel Blake is in UK cinemas from 21 October

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