I, Daniel Blake Indicts Heartlessness


Directed by Ken Loach
eOne Films, 100 minutes, not-rated
* * * * *

I, Daniel Blake is one of the saddest films I’ve seen in some time and that’s saying something as its director, Ken Loach, has never been known for making uplifting films. Loach is an unabashed champion of the British underclass and the sort of director who is unafraid to call out phonies and power abusers.

His target this time is privatization of the British safety net. I, Daniel Blake plays like a blue-collar version of Bleak House or The Trial. Its titular character is, simply, a decent human being. Everyone likes Dan (Dave Johns): his mates from the shop where he worked, people he meets on the street, even his Afro-British neighbor who Dan yells at to take his garbage to the bin instead of leaving along the flat complex balcony. And would they not like him? Dan is a standup guy, the sort who doesn’t have to be asked to help out a person who needs assistance. That includes Katie Morgan, a down-on-her-luck single mom of two children: the sullen, mildly feral Dylan and mixed race Daisy. To make matters worse, British social services relocated Katie (Hayley Squires) from London to Newcastle because the latter has housing for welfare cases such as she. Never mind that Katie knows no one in Newcastle and her mother is in London. 

Dan has problems too. He had a heart attack and can’t work—at least that’s what his cardiologist says. The privatized employment office says otherwise; according to their work capability assessment he is eligible to work because, of course, some tick-the-boxes form knows way better than a heart surgeon. The upshot is that Dan can’t work and he can’t get benefits unless he looks for work that he can’t accept even if he secures it. He can, of course, appeal, but that involves filling out an online form and scheduling a hearing—except he’s a carpenter who has never touched a computer and he has no income. His is the ultimate Dickensian nightmare merged with a Kafkaesque labyrinthine absurdity.

Dan does all he can to maintain his dignity and composure and then some. He is a veritable lifeline for Katie and her kids and the conduit through which Dylan leaves his shell. Katie’s struggles alone will break your heart, but if you think you can’t keep a good man down, maybe you’re na├»ve. The system Dan encounters isn’t just complicated, it’s so heartless and cruel that even Ann (Kate Rutter), the welfare agent who tries to help him, gets into trouble for not following protocol. I do not exaggerate when I say that Dan’s treatment is the sort that would lead an American to lock, load, and shoot everyone in sight. Dan’s response, as befits a good man, is somewhat less aggressive.

Loach’s film is a searing indictment of the callous profit-makers and mindless pencil-pushers who don’t give a damn about decent people or poor mothers who burst into tears and cram unheated beans into their mouths at food banks. It is also an indictment against all those who watch and merely tut-tut the injustices before their eyes or actively enforce rules they know to be immoral. The sort thst doesn’t think they are to blame if their actions cause antisocial responses. Okay, this is a film script, not a documentary, but if a tenth of what we see on the screen is accurate, Great Britain should hang its collective head in shame. Except, of course, this film could have been made in the United States as well. In fact it was. Moonlighting or Florida Project anyone?

I know I’m soap boxing but dammit, it just shouldn’t be this way. What does a man like Daniel Blake have to do to reclaim his humanity? He shouldn’t have to do anything; decency should be its own ticket to personhood. This film will leave you shattered, but shame on you if you think it too depressing to watch. I’m glad we still have directors like Ken Loach with the courage to speak for those whose tongues are silenced by sanctimonious monsters.

Rob Weir

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