Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, is a damning indictment of Tory Britain. Set in Newcastle, it follows the title character’s struggle to negotiate the bureaucracy of the benefits system after suffering a major heart attack. Daniel, played by Dave Johns, is declared fit to work by a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “healthcare professional” and ineligible for Employment and Support Allowance, despite the advice of his doctors. Loach skilfully contrasts the obstinate, uncaring culture of the Job Centre with the compassion of ordinary people to produce a heart-wrenching, anger-inducing call to arms.
Early in the film, Daniel befriends Katie, a single mother of two, after she is ‘sanctioned’ for arriving minutes late for her appointment at the Job Centre, despite having only just arrived in Newcastle. Both characters are determined to find work, with Katie considering taking an Open University course, but they are repeatedly treated by the system as scroungers and cheats. Though Daniel has years of experience as a carpenter, he is forced to jump through hoops such as a CV workshop and online job-searches in order to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance. His lack of computer literacy is overlooked entirely by the Job Centre, which is “digital by default”.
The understated production of this Palme d’Or winner adds to the bleakness of Daniel and Katie’s situations. Though not based on a specific individual’s story, the film draws on the experiences of numerous people interviewed by Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty. Along with some occasionally untidy dialogue, this creates a realistic feel which only adds to the audience’s sympathy and anger.
Later, Daniel heads out to find work, which he must do for 35 hours a week to receive JSA. He is eventually offered an interview at a local workshop however, on his doctor’s advice, he cannot take the job. When explaining this his potential employer, Daniel is dismissed as a ‘scrounger’ who would rather live on benefits than do ‘a hard day’s work’. Here Loach cleverly unpicks the media and government line that benefit claimants are lazy frauds. In truth, they are not trying to cheat the system; the system is cheating them.
By far the most moving scene takes place when Daniel accompanies Katie and her two children to a local foodbank. The audience is first struck by the sheer number of people in need of food; indeed, this has been Loach’s main focus in recent media appearances. Inside the foodbank, Katie’s desperation and hunger becomes too much, causing her to rip open a tin of cold beans and eat them out of her hand. This moment encapsulates the viciousness of the DWP sanctions regime as well as the compassion of the community – Daniel and several foodbank staff immediately rush to her aid.
With a number of twists along the way, the film ends with Daniel finally attending his appeal. His lawyer, visibly furious that Daniel’s ESA was stopped in the first place, is convinced he will win. Indeed, the vast majority of such appeals in the last few years have been won. One of few instances of hope in the whole story is, however, wrenched away at the last second in a cruel twist.
Despite the occasional moments of humour and the heart-warming community spirit and compassion displayed by several characters, including one Job Centre worker, it would be difficult to leave this film feeling anything other than anger and despair. In bringing this issue to light in such an engaging way, Loach has hopefully provided some much-need impetus to the campaign against this Tory government’s thoughtless, heartless, and deadly welfare regime.