2016 Palme D’Or winner I, Daniel Blake is a masterpiece.
Pure and simple, it is the best, most politically provoking and moving film about the pitiful treatment of the poor in David Cameron’s Britain you are likely to see.
Telling the story of a hard working building site joiner Daniel Blake (Dan Johns), who has suffered a heart-attack and is temporarily unable to work, it throws a light on the infuriating, almost Kafka-esque bureaucracy that the less fortunate in society are forced to go through. Through a bureaucratic nightmarish interview Daniel has been deemed fit to work by one of the non-medical representatives of the private company which runs the system, despite the fact that his Doctors had unequivocally stated that he wasn’t fit to work. At the job-centre he meets Katie (Hayley Squires) who after two years in a single bedroom B&B with her two young children has just been relocated to Newcastle by social services as there is no social housing available in London. Her unemployment benefit is being sanctioned because, being brand new to the area, unable to find her way and a victim of late running public transport, she arrived late to her first meeting. The functionary in the office won’t listen.
And so it goes on. They just don’t have enough money to live. The system is against everyone. And the message is clear – it doesn’t want to help and the government has hired a company that is only interesting in hitting targets. Even if some of the staff are old school and want to help, they are hidebound by a system that won’t allow the kindness of strangers.
In two astonishing central performances Dan Johns and Hayley Squires show two decent, kind, thoughtful people being essentially fucked over by the organisation which is meant to help them. People who are doing their best, actively wanting to work and being punished for being unfortunate. Some commentators have said that the very niceness of Daniel’s character, the very fact that he’s such a decent egg is unrealistic or too much to take, but nothing could be further from the truth. The very point is that Daniel is someone you know. The bottom line is that every single member of the audience of the film should be thinking “there but for the grace of God go I.” Hayley Squires’ performance is so heartbreaking self-contained, that every moment where the facade of calm breaks feels like a moment of emotional demolition. The idea of someone being reduced in this way is hard to watch. This film will make you cry, and Hayley Squires as Katie will be at the centre of the emotion. A scene in a (real life) food bank, which was based on something that actually happened, is so gut-wrenchingly painful there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during the screening I attended.
Ken Loach’s directorial style allows the performances to sing at the centre of the story, and by not using incidental music allows a proper honesty in the emotional response of the audience. There’s no score telling us when something is meant to be sad or not. And when the inevitable conclusion rolls in it is like a steamroller leaving the audience crushed.
Paul Laverty’s script is an incredible piece of research – gathered from interviews from people on both sides of the system, including many anonymous whistle-blowing workers from social services appalled at the state of their own jobs. Laverty provides an acute humanity to the normally faceless. These are people. And this is still happening. What’s especially brilliant about the script is that while the characters are trapped, numbed, frustrated, and upset it is left to the audience to be angry.
Whatever your political hue if you see this film and don’t come out of it incredibly angry at the state in which Ian Duncan-Smith and David Cameron left the country, you need to take a long hard look at yourself.
I, Daniel Blake is out in cinemas Friday 21st October and is a must see.