I, Daniel Blake – Film Review

I, Daniel Blake is far from being a Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, it comes from much closer to home, having been filmed in Newcastle. In many ways it is a film which belongs to the people of Newcastle – a land which has not elected a conservative MP since the 1980s; a land where 30% of children live in poverty and 15% of working age adults find themselves without a job. I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a city suffering from decades of neglect, yet whose people are famed around the world for their chipper resoluteness.

I, Daniel Blake could be described a welfare state drama (I know, not the most popular genre) featuring moments of comedy as well as moments of despair. The film tells the story of Daniel Blake, a skilled joiner who has suffered a major heart attack and – having been told not to go back to work by his doctor – finds himself battling against the rigid, bureaucratic procedures of the Department for Work and Pensions which, after carrying out some crude and out-of-touch tests, decides he is fit to work and his only option is to apply for job seeker’s allowance and spend at least 35 hours a week looking for work. Ken Loach’s film frequently mocks the DWP, as illustrated by the much discussed but never seen “decision maker” who staff repeatedly tell Daniel will be the one to solve all his concerns, yet seems an enigma even to staff themselves. Whilst battling through the red tape, Daniel comes face to face with a computer for the first time in his life and, rather embarrassingly, sits lambasting the machines in Newcastle City Library. On one occasion after expressing that pencil is his medium of choice, the DWP tell him he can obtain a paper application form. “And where can I get that?” he asks. “You’ll find it online, Sir”.

Whilst waiting in the DWP offices, Daniel crosses paths with Katie, a single mother of two, who, after spending two years in a hostel in London, has been forced to relocate up north into a squalid home having to choose between paying for electricity and buying school shoes for her children. Despite his own difficult circumstances, Daniel offers to use his expertise to help polish the house up, becoming a father figure to the children in the process. One of the key messages the film expresses is that not everyone seeking benefits is a liar and a cheat, but are often decent, hardworking men and women who’ve been dealt a bad hand. Nobody is immune to finding themselves in a position where state benefits are the only option – we never know what’s around the corner and most of us are living paycheque to paycheque anyway, no matter how much we try and avoid that truth.

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of our vulnerabilities is depicted when Katie, whilst using a food bank, can’t help herself from gorging on a cold can of baked beans with her fingers to satisfy her burgeoning hunger, or when she is caught shoplifting something as basic as sanitary towels, or when she resorts to selling her own body to buy new clothes for the kids. Sometimes I questioned whether I was actually seeing 21st century Britain or some failed Communist state, yet this is the harsh reality of our country today, a country where over one million three-day emergency food supplies were given out by the Trussell Trust last year. That’s not a statistic to be proud of.

To sum up, I, Daniel Blake is a plucky and candid film that makes you laugh, makes you cry and most importantly makes you think. It’s a stark reminder that not all men are made equal – even within our own country – and that brings shame on the state for not only depriving our poor of support, but of their dignity too.

In the words of Daniel Blake himself:

“I Daniel Blake am a citizen; nothing more; nothing less.”