Heartfelt yet didactic, humanistic yet designed as an exposé of the neoliberalization of Britain’s welfare state, Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning “I, Daniel Blake” straddles the fine line between social realism and outright agitprop. The righteously outraged script by Loach’s regular collaborator Paul Laverty offers a Hellerian tour of Britain’s labyrinthine benefits system with the title character (played with surly charm by comedian Dave Johns) as our own personal Geordie Yossarian, ground under the wheels of a complex bureaucracy that would rather kill him than give him a break.
Though Daniel suffers from a life-threatening heart condition that prevents him from working, his application for disability benefits is rejected, forcing him to turn to unemployment while he waits for his appeal to be processed. The arrangement makes little sense—Daniel is required to go through a charade of applying for jobs he can’t possibly take—but it is his only means of earning an income. Daniel is forced to navigate a seemingly endless array of applications, check-in sessions, online forms, phone calls, and resume workshops just to keep from starving.
Laverty’s screenplay may consist of scenarios contrived to illustrate the various injustices suffered by Britain’s poor at the hands of a heartless Tory government, but it speaks to his sensitivity that the film rarely feels like a sermon. This is thanks in large part to Loach’s sensitivity, his ease with actors, and his unfussy sense of balance. Loach is able to honor the dignity of working-class people without romanticizing their situation, capturing the hopes and ambitions of their characters while keeping a clear-eyed focus on the brutal limits imposed on the lives of society’s most vulnerable citizens by an uncaring capitalist system.
This dynamic is most heartbreakingly explored in the figure of Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother of two new to Newcastle and struggling to find her bearings. She is befriended by Daniel, who fixates on her offhand remark that she’d like to return to studying to become a nurse but who instead finds herself working as a prostitute to make ends meet. While Daniel feels an almost personal betrayal, judging Katie harshly for her decision, Loach and Laverty allow us to see the ambivalence in Katie’s choice. Whoring may not be her first choice (or even her second, third, or hundredth), but it at least it puts food on the table—not a given for Katie, as demonstrated in one truly wrenching scene in a local food pantry. Loach allows us feel empathy for a woman who is forced into a difficult profession without judging her or painting her as “fallen.”
Loach and Laverty could fairly be accused of portraying their working-class subjects as a bit too saintly—they are sometimes crude, but almost never mean or nasty or hateful—but this is perhaps a necessary corrective to popular depictions of the poor as shiftless, base, and lazy. In contrast, the film’s portrayal of government workers seems a bit harsh; they are reduced to cogs in a machine, who, save for one notable exception, seem completely lacking in compassion for the people they service. Loach and Laverty imply that this is by design, that the government has crapified the system on purpose, making it so difficult that many people will simply give up on trying to collect their rightly-due benefits. Nevertheless, it is still disappointing that the film’s empathy does not extend to the employees forced to carry out these horrific policies. After all, if they were to lose their jobs, surely they would be in the same position as Daniel.
“I, Daniel Blake” is not a fun watch, but its bleakness is leavened by Daniel’s righteous indignation and no-bullshit sense of humor. Laverty’s screenplay ultimately adheres to a somewhat overly conventional dramatic arc, one that at times (such as an act of protest that gives the film its title) threatens to disrupt the film’s carefully calibrated sense of balance. It is really Loach and Laverty’s fiery anger that holds the film together. Their outrage at their country’s neoliberal turn—which has turned citizens into consumers, civil servants into contractors, and the social safety net into an obstacle course—is palpable in every scene. If their fury is primarily directed at the here and now of Britain’s soul-deadening bureaucratic miasma, it is nonetheless alive with the sense that another world is possible, if we fight for it.