Warwickshire-born director Ken Loach scales the cold, hard face of Britain’s over-burdened welfare system in a grimly compelling portrait of the bureaucratic red tape that separates hard-working and desperate folk from the benefits they need to survive.
I, Daniel Blake is a quiet yet impassioned call to arms, centred on two people from different worlds, who have fallen through the cracks and are largely ignored by society.
Scripted by Loach’s long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, it’s a character study of mordant humour and harsh, unflinching reality that stokes our anger and frustration alongside the characters as they meet endless resistance to their efforts.
Thus the eponymous 59-year-old joiner has to spend 35 hours a week applying for jobs that he can’t take because of his medical condition, and this search for employment propels him into an online world that is completely alien to a man who has worked with his hands his entire life.
“I hear this all the time, ‘We’re digital by default’,” he rages. “Well, I’m pencil by default!”
Daniel (Dave Johns) has recently suffered a heart attack and his doctor has signed him off work until he recovers.
Following an assessment by telephone, a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions arrives in the post, which reveals he is not entitled to sickness benefit.
In order to qualify for jobseeker’s allowance, he has to agree to spend his week pointlessly looking for employment or attending a CV workshop, while clashing with officious staff, who adhere rigidly to the rules.
When Daniel attempts to fill in the jobseeker’s form online at his local library with the assistance of people sitting on the other computers, he fails to complete the screens within his allocated slot.
“Sorry mate, your time’s up!” a young men tells him, those words laced with hidden meaning given Daniel’s recent scare.
During one foray in search of compassion, Daniel meets feisty single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, Dylan (Dylan McKiernan) and Daisy (Briana Shann), who have been moved hundreds of miles from London into rundown council accommodation in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Despite his woes, Daniel becomes a fatherly figure to Katie, completing simple DIY tasks to ensure her accommodation is tolerable.
Cruel fate sinks its talons into both Daniel and Katie, and they are forced to make terrible choices to keep their heads above water.
I, Daniel Blake might be glaringly obvious in its intentions, including at least one scene that is unnecessarily manipulative, but there is fire in the film’s belly.
Johns and Squires deliver riveting performances including a harrowing scene at a food bank, which lands with the force of a sledgehammer to the sternum.
There but for the grace of God stumble all of us, or so it seems.