I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as “just a movie,” and it’s true. Even the most ineptly produced piece of disposable cinematic junk does not spring from a cultural vacuum… and in fact, entertainment deliberately offered up as mindless pabulum can be the most revealing about the underlying unspoken assumptions upon which our society operates.
But when I say that I, Daniel Blake is not just a movie, I’m talking about something on a whole ’nother level. This is a fictional story, yes, but it is about truth with a capital T, and about facts with a big ol’ F (you) to those who would like to deny the harsh realities of the lives of far too many people in what is supposedly one of the most advanced nations on the planet. Daniel Blake is lefty and loud and proud (and heartbreaking and infuriating with it). The sneering disparagement with which some of the right-wing press in the UK has greeted this movie is proof enough that its blistering power is unignorable, even among those who would like to be able to ignore it, and who would like to be able to continue to ignore the actual real people trying to cope with the very humiliations it depicts. (I refuse to link to these heartless bastards, refuse to give them any pageviews or even a pretense of legitimacy. Google the film’s title and the names of the usual rags, if you must.)
Ironically, though, while it’s tough to say that Daniel Blake is “entertaining,” this may be the most accessible film yet from legendary British director Ken Loach, reteaming once again with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty. I’m thinking especially of audiences in the US, where the film will open in limited release at the end of December (and any major Oscar nominations, which wouldn’t be a surprise, could see it expand significantly). I remember seeing Loach’s 1998 film My Name Is Joe in New York when it was new, and being startled to see that it was subtitled because the Glasgow accents of its characters were deemed too dense to be understandable to American ears. (This may not have been an unfair assumption.) But if Daniel Blake is very specifically set amongst people trying to navigate the indignities and the Catch-22s of Britain’s social-welfare benefits system, it will nevertheless feel very familiar to many Americans, because much the same is happening in the US.
Here we meet Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter in Newcastle, in the north of England. He’s recently had a heart attack, and though he is recovering well, his doctor tells him that he cannot go back to work yet. But the Department for Work and Pension, the national government agency for exactly what it sounds like, determines that he is fit for work, based on a rather bullshit fitness checklist, which includes questions such as “Can you walk 50 meters unassisted?” and “Can you raise your hands over your head as if you were putting on a hat?” (This “test” has been an absolute disaster at the task for which it is intended.) Just as Daniel wonders whether the woman administering this test is qualified to make a medical judgment on his fitness (she is not, of course), many Americans will recognize similar nonsense in how call-center employees at health-insurance companies use scripts and checklists to overrule doctors’ judgments on the need for certain medical tests. Anyway, because Daniel is “officially” deemed fit for work, he can no longer get the disability payment he needs to get by while he’s recuperating… though he can get “job seeker’s allowance,” a rough equivalent to state unemployment insurance in the US. But to get that he has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work — which is a job in itself, which he isn’t supposed to be doing, and anyway there are no jobs to be had — and he couldn’t take any job he might theoretically be offered because his doctor says it’s too medically dangerous for him to go back to work!
This is only the beginning of the hamster wheels of red-tape idiocy that Daniel faces when dealing with DWP, but I will leave those to you to discover. Just thinking about them now is raising my blood pressure. And recall that all the crap thrown on Daniel is representative of what happens in the real world: one telling note in the film’s end credits thanks all the anonymous employees of DWP and other government agencies who shared their insider knowledge about how the system operates. Though of course much of what we see here is common knowledge… at least among the poor and the desperate whose stories don’t typically get told in the arena of a major feature film.
If you suspect that the system — and the big overall System — has been deliberately made difficult to use, one kindly DWP worker at his local Jobcentre (the public face of the DWP) confirms this for Daniel: the hope is that people will just give up, and the reality is that that is what happens. And this is the first impossible truth of I, Daniel Blake: that bureaucracies that may once have been intended to help people have long since become machines intended to crush them. We see a corollary to that here, too: Those bureaucratic machines turn those who work for them into unfeeling monsters, too, for the most part. (Of course, many of those people are just desperate to hold on to the jobs they have… which helps perpetuate the machine.) That kindly Jobcentre lady is an anomaly… and she gets scolded by her boss for helping Daniel.
If there’s any upside to Daniel Blake, it’s in how everyone else comes together to help one another even though they’re all struggling. Daniel’s young neighbor (I cannot find the actor’s name anywhere online!), who has a shitty warehouse job and a dodgy sideline in selling not-quite-counterfeit sneakers, becomes an unexpected ally for Daniel. The workers in a food bank — oh dear god, the food-bank scene is brutally devastating — are helpful and warmhearted beyond imagining. Centrally, though, it is Daniel’s new friendship with single mother Katie (Hayley Squires: A Royal Night Out) that is the heart and soul of the film. Hers is yet another sorry tale of the injustice and — worse — shortsighted inhumanity of the current benefits system: housing is too expensive in London for it to be occupied by “the likes of” her, as Katie says, so she has been uprooted from London and all of her family-and-friend support, and her kids have been uprooted from their school, which seems like exactly the opposite thing to do if you genuinely want to help a young woman get back on her feet, and to ensure her kids are on a track to a good job later on. The emotional and psychological toll fighting the system takes on people underlines everything here; before his heart attack, Daniel had been caring for his terminally ill wife at home until her death, and he doesn’t seem to have bounced back from that, either. But the humanity and the dignity of everyone buckling under the strain never falters, even as they are helping others in the midst of their own personal hells. Even as everything they are pushing back against wants to strip them of their humanity and their dignity.
I, Daniel Blake is not unrelentingly grim — Johns has mostly been a standup comic prior to this role, and he brings a sort of resigned humor to much of the crap he encounters. But unlike many deeply emotional films that move you to gobs of tears, there is no catharsis to be had here. There is only shame and rage that we have allowed things to get so bad. And it is our fault, though it feels as if control has been wrenched away from us. A film like this one could be the impetus we need to wrench that control back, and to reestablish basic decency as the operating standard of our governments. Or perhaps to establish it for the first time.