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Ken Loach has tackled some hard-hitting subjects in his life – poverty, war, migration, recurring dreams about Eric Cantona – so the very topical issue of benefits fits right in with his previous repertoire. Loach’s particular brand of hyperrealism always does modest business at the box office but he’s a critical darling and claimed the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival – the first British filmmaker to win the award twice. The film that won it for him is ‘I, Daniel Blake’, a stunningly realistic portrayal of the hardships of the benefits system, and the awful things it can do to good people.
The eponymous Daniel is a Geordie joiner who survives a heart attack only to find himself caught between a rock and a hard place – told by his doctor that he should not work, told by the benefits office that he must do. His frustrations mount after a series of meetings at the Job Centre, in which it becomes apparent that his appeal against the ruling will take several weeks to process. He finally snaps and angrily interjects when he overhears young mother-of-two Katie being ejected for having the temerity to protest her benefit payments being halted. Dan’s vociferous protests get him kicked out as well, but he and Katie strike up a friendship over their shared troubles. They lean on each other – she has only just moved north from London so is without friends; and he is a lonely man, outwardly jovial but lost, by his own admission, without the company of his deceased wife.
At times this feels more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary than a film, so genuine are the situations, so heartfelt are the performances. Dave Johns is better known for the TV comedy circuit than movies but is a natural as down-to-earth Dan, and Hayley Squires is every inch the put-upon single mother she’s cast as. There’s a scene where Katie, who has managed to hold herself together through her entire life being uprooted, is driven to tears by an accidentally-smashed bathroom tile. I can’t do justice as to why this scene really got to me, except to say that I think we all know that feeling, where the smallest thing can be the one to break us. These thousand tiny frustrations that the characters go through are what makes the film seem so authentic. Loach’s dedication to absolute realism has never worked better, because this is truly a film that moves at the speed of reality. Extended scenes of Dan waiting for a phone call to connect or trying to work out how to use a computer may not sound like gold but they all build towards the bigger message: that the welfare system in this country is so ridiculously biased towards those who built it; those who will never actually use it. There are no real bad guys in the movie – jobsworths, yes, but jobsworths who are just sticking to the system, albeit a bit too resolutely. The big villain here is the invisible one, the government, so often the target of Loach’s socialist ire, and so out of touch with the people they purport to represent.
But the government is as untouchable here as in reality; nobody marches up to the gates of Downing Street and demands things be changed. Dan does get his moment in the sun though. Unable to find anyone who will listen to his grievances, he instead opts to spray-paint them on the wall of the Job Centre. It’s a glorious act of defiance but all too brief, and soon the status quo resumes. Dan is forced to sell his furniture and becomes a shadow of his former self; Katie turns to shoplifting and prostitution just to earn enough money for food and clothes. In each other’s friendship, and in the small but invaluable joys that Katie’s children bring, they find solace. And they find ways to keep going when the alternative would be easier.
This is such an affecting film without ever needing to resort to great swelling soundtracks or emotional outbursts. It’s all so subtle and understated, more so than almost any other film I’ve seen. It steers clear of melodrama for so long than when the kicker does come, it only serves to strengthen, and not cheapen, the movie’s message. But more important than the message is the people, the good people let down by their own country, and the hordes of others who care more for the system than for their fellow man.
I, Daniel Blake is running at The Dukes until November 17th.