From long-time collaborators writer Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach comes this gut-wrenchingly realistic film about the institutionalised lack of compassion and empathy engendered by the cost-cutting and privatisation of welfare services in Britain. With more children than ever before living below the poverty line in Australia, this issue is particularly relevant here too.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower. Having suffered a severe heart attack, he has been off work and on a sickness benefit allowance but has received notification deeming him no longer eligible for these benefits. His telephone conversation with “health care professional” Amanda, played over the opening credits, might be amusing were it not so palpably frustrating.
Because his doctor reiterates that a premature return to work would kill him — in fact, he might need to have a pacemaker-defibrillator fitted — Daniel clearly has to appeal the decision. Yet, in order to receive any money while he is waiting indefinitely for his appeal to be heard, he must apply for a job-seeker allowance even though he can’t take a job should he get one.
This Catch-22 situation is further layered by the requirement that such applications have to be made online. Daniel does not have a computer, nor can he use one. Although his attempts to use public computers are comical, the stress of his predicament negates the humour of the situation. With the help of his IT-savvy neighbour, Maximilian, Daniel is able to at least complete the various applications.
Unfortunately, each time he clashes with a bureaucrat, Daniel’s situation worsens. During one of his visits to the employment support office, Daniel observes a young single mother who is encountering similarly unfeeling treatment. Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children have had to move to Newcastle from London in order to get accommodation. He befriends her and the children and, despite the sheer awfulness of their respective plights, they look out for one another. Katie, Daisy and Dylan become the family that Daniel and his wife never had.
Unfortunately, the inescapable facts are that he is a sick man applying for non-existent jobs while Katie cannot adequately clothe or feed her children. Having both fallen foul of the system, neither receive any support allowance and each must resort to desperate measures to survive.
Even though it portrays with devastating clarity the dilemma of the unemployed, elderly, ill and impoverished members of society, I, Daniel Blake is an inspiring film. “They’ve picked the wrong one if they think I’m going to give up," Daniel says. His indomitable spirit infuses the film throughout.
As he wrote in the speech that he prepared for his appeal hearing, “I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen — nothing more, nothing less.”
So far, this film has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2016 and the Prix du Public at the recent Locarno International Film Festival.