I, Daniel Blake
Cert: 15 / 100 mins / Dir. Ken Loach / Trailer
Making headlines for all the right and wrong reasons (although there's little bad publicity in the lead-up to a film) is Ken Loach's brutally frank critique of the current benefits system in Britain. After suffering a major heart attack, Newcastle carpenter Daniel (Dave Johns) is assessed as being fit for work by a governmental sub-contract team, despite being forcibly signed off by his doctor. Unable to legally work and unable to claim either Jobseeker's Allowance (because he's not fit enough to accept work) or Employment and Support Allowance (because he's been declared fit enough to work), Daniel finds himself in a downward spiral of bureaucracy and departmental neglect. Against this, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother of two who's been moved up from London by the Housing Department and is also struggling to get a foot on the employment ladder. While they rely on each other for platonic emotional support, that only goes so far as the desperation of poverty tightens around them*1…
Loach's knack for making unrelentingly grim subject matter intrinsically watchable has never been more timely. He underlines the broken nature of the current system without resorting to hysterics; not calling for it to be scrapped or replaced, just fixed. In other hands, the more surly or unhelpful members of the Job Centre staff would be exaggerated or demonised, but here they're presented as other pieces in the same game, trapped by the rules which prevent anyone from moving forward. They're not necessarily sympathetic characters, but the flaws are revealed in the system, not the people.
The film is never an easy watch, indeed that's the point. Paul Laverty's screenplay captures the frustration and anger of the situation, but struggles with the feeling. While the audience genuinely feels for the film's characters, dialogue in the more emotional scenes seems to swing between heavy-handedly scripted and clunkingly improvised. Many of the incidental characters feel like they're reading a script (even if, in the case of the DWP assessment staff, they're literally reading a script), tripping over their lines, laden with false emphasis. And for reasons I can't quite work out, Dave Johns seems unable to hold the Newcastle accent. When it slips, it goes through that sort of posh-Geordie that Kevin Whately's does in ITV's Lewis and ends up somewhere in Middlesex. All the more bizarre since Johns is originally from Wallsend so should have no problem staying on target. All of this never derails things, but you know what I'm like for accents, and Newcastle's my part of the world originally. I'll put it down to a director who was maybe more focused on the message than its delivery, anyway.
The film was every bit as intense and revelatory as I'd anticipated, but not as emotionally engaging. And if the last eighteen months in the UK has proved anything, it's that winning people's minds over isn't enough: you've got to win their hearts. But the rest of tonight's audience bought into it, so what do I know?
But credit where it's undeniably due, Loach has shot a film entirely in Newcastle and there's not a single glory-shot of The Bridge. Which is more than I can manage once I step off the train…
In recent memory? A Street Cat Named Bob, probably.
But maybe if you'd got to the end of that film and thought 'well, I could have done without the spiritually uplifting triumph over adversity, to be honest'.
Although the film's message should be broadcast as widely as possible, I, Daniel Blake is inherently televisual.
To be fair, I don't think it is.
Not at all.
Not at all.
Level 2: This film stars Hayley Squires, who also appeared in 2013's Complicit, as did David 'Kallus' Oyelowo.
*1 Okay, spoilery ponder for those who've seen the film (highlight-to-read): You know that bit where Dan works out that Katie's been working as a prostitute so goes to the brothel to confront her? Well a) how did he know she'd be the sex worker he got when he arrived? There's got to be more than one of them there or that's just a terrible business model, and b) there was no address on the scrap of paper or envelope he found, just a phone number and a web address, so does that mean he's been using the computer at the job centre to look up escorts online? No wonder they've stopped his fucking benefits…
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.