Directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, who has penned most of Loach’s films since acting in Land and Freedom, I, Daniel Blake was a big hit at Cannes and had a surprisingly strong showing in UK cinemas as well. It’s Loach’s first film set in the North East, which is surprising given the director’s frequent use of deprived areas of the UK.
Blake (Dave Johns) is a joiner who has had a heart attack and needs to sign on to receive sickness benefit. However, his eligibility test is denied, throwing him onto jobseekers allowance and an impossible job-search treadmill. He doesn’t understand the rules nor can he use computers, which is required for his job search.
At the Job Centre he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who has been sent to Newcastle from a homeless hostel in London, without knowing anyone there. The film details their struggle to survive the ridiculous benefit system in the UK, and as you would expect, it does not go well for anyone.
Laverty—normally quite a good screenwriter—took every true horror story of the benefit system and applied them to just two characters, resulting in an exaggerated and almost unbelievable script. For example, at one point Blake is stuck on hold with the DWP for three hours (and paying for it). The benefits system is simplified to show its worst side, when in reality claimants do sometimes get some help and Blake does eventually get sympathy from one of the job centre employees. That said, the only completely false moment comes when Blake is offered a drink from the water cooler at the Job Centre (they were all removed years ago, thanks to Tory cuts).
Loach is no visual stylist, but the acting is fine—Johns is a stand-up comedian, while Squires has a background in soaps, and they inhabit their roles well.
The real audience for the film is middle-class people who have no idea what’s been going on for years in the benefit system. Waking them up is a good goal, but the movie is ultimately simplistic and over-rated, having won a Palm D’Or mainly for political rather than artistic reasons. The much-talked-about food-bank scene is effective. However, one where Katie is let off after shoplifting and then offered “help” by a security guard who does not have her best interests at heart, is the one where the film really lost me.
The disc includes a commentary from Loach and Laverty, a relatively lengthy making-of featurette, and some deleted scenes.