At the beginning of Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, the opening credits show against a black background while we overhear a telephone conversation between the title character, Daniel Blake, and a social worker who goes through a litany of questions that Blake has already answered on a written form he submitted, all irrelevant to the real issue, which is that he recently had a heart attack, had to stop working temporarily, but hasn’t yet been approved for disability benefits. Blake’s sarcastic comments to the anonymous woman on the line are amusing—perhaps because of them, his application for payments is denied, despite the support of two qualified physicians.
Now, if you’ve ever found yourself on hold for long periods, listening to lousy muzak while waiting for some bureaucrat to pick up the phone, or if you’ve spent time struggling to get through the paperwork at a government office, you’ll relate to this movie right away. But there’s much more at stake here than mere inconvenience. Loach is taking aim at the consequences of austerity measures taken after the 2008 crash in the United Kingdom. The administration of the welfare state was put in the hands of corporations who have an interest in denying as many benefits as they can, and the easiest targets are the sick and the poor.
Daniel Blake finds himself caught in a revolving door. He has no idea how long his appeal will take. Meanwhile he has to apply for regular unemployment, which means he has to prove that he’s looking for a job thirty hours a week, even though his doctors say he should be taking it easy after his heart attack. And if he gets offered a job, well, he has to turn down that offer, because he already has one waiting for him as soon as he gets better. In the meantime, he is quickly running out of money.
The 81-year-old Ken Loach has become a living legend of British film. His movies deal with the struggles of working people, and this gives him a wide range. The focus is on ordinary human beings and how they are worthy of love and respect. So even though the background of I, Daniel Blake is this bureaucratic nightmare, the central story is Daniel himself, a mild-mannered fiftyish carpenter, a widower who has worked construction most of his life and has never had to ask for assistance before. He’s played by Dave Johns, a TV actor and comedian whose performance here is a model of gentleness and restraint. Blake makes friends with a young single mother named Katie, played by Hayley Squires, who has also been given the runaround by social services. The film’s emotional heart is in the friendship that develops between them. In helping her and her kids, Blake demonstrates the values he lives by, and it also turns out that he’s quite a craftsman. He fixes electrical appliances and plumbing problems, and makes wooden crafts for her kids. Another theme is subtly touched on here—society’s current indifference to skill. Everything is about profit, but Daniel’s life is about helping people.
We’re also reminded that not everyone owns a computer or even knows how to use one. The social agencies have defaulted to everything being online, and Blake’s attempts to learn how to use computers are funny but also sad—when a library assistant tells him to move the mouse he lifts it and then moves it up and down in the air.
The straightforwardly realistic script is by longtime Loach collaborator Paul Laverty. The direction is very patient. We nestle into Blake’s way of doing things, and seeing reality from his perspective makes the official corporate world seem even crazier. I, Daniel Blake attains unexpected gravity by appreciating and respecting the little things in life, which as it turns out, are worth fighting for.