Ken Loach’s Palme D’or-winning I, Daniel Blake is a work of direct political activism. It seeks to invalidate a certain streak of contemporary understanding – that the recipients of social security are scroungers and benefit cheats – and moves to argue that it is the system not the people embroiled within it that is morally reprehensible.
In the film, the Welfare State has ceased to function as a safety net for the poorest and most destitute. Instead, disabled and chronically ill citizens are forced to navigate a Kafkaesque world of internet form-filling, health assessments and draconian punishments for minor transgressions. The spirit of George Orwell’s 1984 returns with the film’s emphasis on an elusive presence named ‘The Decision Maker’ who ultimately decides whether characters will receive support from the government if they are deemed ill or disabled enough.
I, Daniel Blake deals with what has become a national sickness: the demonisation of those who have the least across 21st century Britain. But while it seeks to root its arguments within universal experience, it is also a deeply local film.
The film is set in Newcastle upon Tyne and focuses its energies not on the leafy suburbs of Jesmond and Gosforth and the city’s neoclassical centre, but the utilitarian flats and housing estates of Byker and the West End.
The film falls directly into the traditions of British social realism: the wet and windy, impoverished North of England is the site for political struggle. The grimness of the Northern landscape effortlessly cooperates with the gruesome system Loach is attempting to expose. Yet, in true Northern-realist fashion, the people of the region, endlessly battered by both meteorological phenomena and a contemporary order that does not work in their favour, come out strong in the end. These are the real people of Britain, Loach argues, they care about one another, they are willing to struggle against the odds, they deserve our overwhelming admiration.
Local comedian Dave Johns plays the eponymous Daniel Blake, a joiner who has recently suffered a major heart attack. According to his doctor, he is unable to work and must seek Employment Support Allowance from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). But the health assessment, administrated by a ‘health care professional’ who is neither a doctor nor a nurse, does not go as planned. Deemed ‘fit for work’, Blake must spend 35 hours a week searching for a job he cannot take if he is to receive Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA in 2016 would amount to £73.10 per week for a man of his age).
Blake is a traditional Geordie, accustomed to working with his hands in the building and construction industries of Tyneside. His illness and the demands of the DWP have however forced him to come to terms with the challenges of modernity. The film agrees with what I have elsewhere termed the narrative of the ‘Geordie in Crisis’: he is thus a somewhat romanticised figure, formed through the processes of memory and looking back into the past. Out of step with the present, his decline, charted sympathetically, appears with regret. Yet, an association with the humorous, does not allow his depiction to fall into outright despair. Lamentable but appealing through the virtues of hard work, durability, solidarity and good humour, the decline of the traditional Geordie functions as an endearing symbol of the impact of economic and social change.
Blake learns that welfare claims must be made via the DWP’s online site, and it is on its sister-site Universal Jobmatch where he must subsequently record his daily searches for employment. Forms must not be filled out in person and workbooks must be accompanied by online evidence. Blake, the traditional Geordie uprooted from his usual way of life, has never used a computer and struggles to fill in his application for JSA. Thankfully, he is surrounded by a number of cooperative and amicable friends and strangers, from his next door neighbour China, who spends most of the film attempting to sell imported knock off trainers to the people of Tyneside, and the many other members of the local community equally entangled in challenging circumstances. By virtue of such associations, the film argues that Blake is not the only person struggling, he is no one off. He reflects wider problems which must be confronted.
As routine within works of film and television set on Tyneside, Blake forms an unlikely friendship with an outsider from London. Hayley Squires plays Katie, a single mother also divorced from her past, sent to Newcastle where housing is cheaper and more readily available than the capital. With the Newcastle-London axis secured, the film investigates the effects of labyrinthine bureaucracy and poverty on not just the two leads but Katie’s children, Daisy and Dylan, who are secondary victims of the DWP’s prejudice.
Katie is lost within two separate realms: the empty and insensitive spaces of the Job Centre Plus and the world of the Geordie, whose traditions and language are wholly alien. The film offers three heightened emotional punches involving Katie. It depicts her breakdown at the food bank, where paralysing hunger overwhelms any obedience to social decorum, and her attempt to steal the staples of feminine life (sanitary towels and razors) from a nearby corner shop. Although she is ultimately let off this theft by an understanding shopkeeper, the corner shop’s security guard here hands her an employment offer: prostitution at a local brothel. Desperate, she takes the job.
Blake, who has meanwhile had most of his furniture repossessed and has begun constructing replacements with the few tools that remain under his care, tracks down Katie at the brothel. He pleads that there must be another way but Katie no longer has anymore options.
The final scenes offer, however, the greatest emotional blows. Sanctioned for not complying with the rationale of the DWP, Blake takes matters into his own hands and graffities triumphantly ‘I Daniel Blake demand my appeal date before I starve and change the shite music on the phones!’ across the exterior of the Job Centre. In true fighting fashion, he is cheered on by pedestrians, Job Centre workers and a hen party (this is of course 21st century Newcastle).
The ending conforms to the logic of film’s position as a work of activism. It must end as one would expect, anything less would undermine its point. As with much of the plot, we can here forgive Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty for coordinating the film to their own visions. I, Daniel Blake ultimately exists in order to bring about direct political change. Whether the DWP’s decision last week to scrap retesting chronically ill and disabled welfare claimants has been influenced by the critical acclaim already garnered by the film or instead symbolises a new political era for Theresa May’s Conservative government, however, remains unresolved.