I, Daniel Blake

Director: Ken Loach (2016) BBFC cert: 15

If a measure of a films greatness is its ability to generate anger, then this raw slice of social realism is a masterpiece.

This is a rage fuelled articulation of the pain and damage imposed on ordinary people by the machinery of state geared up to disenfranchise them. It’s a bleak and uncompromising condemnation of the deliberate destruction of the social contract between state and citizen by successive UK governments.

The 80 year old Ken Loach delivers a typically powerful piece of political agitation. The veteran director of Cathy Come Home (1966) demonstrates his undiminished rage at injustice inflicted on the most vulnerable.

As Daniel and Katie, the honest performances of Dave Johns and Hayley Squires give humanity and dramatic weight to the story.

Following a major heart attack, 59-year-old joiner Daniel Blake has been signed off sick by his doctor. He is contrarily assessed as able to work, losing his state sickness benefits. This decision making process is outsourced to a private company by the Department for Work and Pensions.

While Daniel attempts to appeal the decision he has no income and is unable to work, but is expected to look for a job in an area of high unemployment.

He meets single mother Katie of two who has relocated to Newcastle from a homeless persons’ hostel in London. He takes a grandfatherly interest in her kids and their positive response to him makes the subsequent slide into distress all the more affecting.

Moments of humour, camaraderie and small acts of kindness make the uncaring cruelty suffered all the more bitter. Debt, hunger, criminality and mental illness are accompanied by a crucifying sense of shame.

All these afflictions are prompted and then maintained by a bureaucracy which actively seeks to avoid helping the deserving poor by an incomprehensible claims system. Jargon, call waiting and internet-only applications are effective barriers to successful claims. Sanctions for non compliance with the rules are routinely threatened.

Loach presents in a style as severe as the policies of austerity meted out by the UK government. There’s an absolute absence of sentimentality and spectacle. The lack of the latter means this will translate easily to television, but without losing any of its righteous anger.

Filming took place on location in Newcastle Upon Tyne. The city offers an array of locations rich in visual texture which are mostly ignored, as a result the city never feels like a character in its own right. The majestic Tyne Bridge is absent, there’s the merest glimpse of glorious Grey Street and scenes are content to play out in anonymous streets, offices and front rooms.

Saving his fury for the dehumanising bureaucratic systems, Loach refuses to demonise anyone. Pimps, madams, police and even the bureaucrats are generally given sympathetic hearings, while outright villainy is absent.

This is probably just as well, the gangsters in Loach’s enjoyable magical realist fable Looking For Eric (2009) were very weakly drawn. In order to create a palpable sense of community, Loach glosses over the chaos of noise, vandalism and random violence which exists at the frayed edges of society.

Fish are a recurring motif and the Christian symbol for hope and peace is a mocking reminder of politicians who make political capital from being openly devout, but whose policies are criminally destructive. This criticism is cross-party and deep rooted.

I’ve never left a cinema burning with anger at the state of the UK. And if you have the slightest sliver of a social conscience, neither will you.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

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