“I, Daniel Blake” Review

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a kind of film whose theme of the individual vs. the system, brutal honesty and underlying power make it a compulsory watch for everyone. The story centres on Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year old widowed carpenter living in the UK, who is forced to rely on the benefits system (welfare system) to support himself after his doctor diagnosed him with heart problems. What follows is his experience being part of that system where a person is just a number and where there is little place for basic human understanding and compassion. All this may sound mundane and even dull, but the film is anything but that. Under Loach’s nuanced direction, we follow Blake as he makes friends with a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and does everything in his power to make his own and others’ lives bearable. The true power of this gentle, realistic film that displays the kindness of others and human hope, lies in showing ordinary people struggling on a daily basis against the system that is paradoxically designed to keep them in the same miserable place.

Ken Loach is not an ordinary film director. In 1977, he rejected an OBE (Order of the British Empire), one of the most prestigious British awards that are given to those who made significant contributions to science, arts or public service. Loach said that he did not want to belong to a club whose members committed horrible crimes, and did not want to “defer to the monarchy” and to the name of the British Empire. This director is a brave one and one with the vision. His philosophy when it comes to film-making is even simpler: following in the footsteps of director Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves (1948)), his films focus on ordinary people and their day-to-day struggles. In I, Daniel Blake, we are presented with a carpenter who faces homelessness through no fault of his own. Daniel is not a criminal, a social outcast or a moral degenerate. He is a good man and a kind human being who has been working all his life and now wants to make ends meet.

Set in Newcastle, UK, this brave film talks about the social issue that the director is very passionate about: the UK employment/social support/benefits system, its loopholes and weaknesses. The film shows people who find themselves at the very bottom of the social ladder in the country. The UK remains a class-based society with discriminatory principles in place and virtually no possibility for lower classes to move up the ladder (because of their “undesirable” upbringing/lack of education/accent, etc.). Ken Loach’s knows that this is a story that needed to be told through film. The benefits system in the UK, especially a pre-reform system, is kafkaesque, with many people stuck in one place, feeling as though they are just “numbers” in the computer, reduced to being almost prison inmates facing endless, often demeaning appointments with advisors that blame exclusively the unemployed for their situation, stripping them of the last vestige of respect they had for themselves, especially through various endless delays and support appeals that lead to nowhere. These people are often stigmatised and bullied. And these are often the people who need human understanding and a kind word the most, because they often have children on their hands, psychological problems (depression), and money and accommodation worries.  

A Korean poster of the film

The UK is not a country known for its bureaucracy (in comparison to many other European countries), but the benefits system in the UK can become bureaucratic and seems to aim to humiliate the already desperate, depressed, poor and already stigmatised-through-their-unemployment individuals even further. I Daniel Blake is so fascinating because it is so true. Without any embellishments, Loach just shows the truth – and it aims both to pain and wake people up. Daniel Blake in the story becomes stuck in “no man’s land”, unable to work but unable to claim the government money either. The frustration and desperation felt by the character is also felt by the audience, especially since Mr Blake is also computer-illiterate (he had no need for computers in his life being a carpenter) and most applications and CVs (resumes) are to be done digitally, or so the regulations “dictate”.

The housing crisis also gets its spotlight in the film. Katie, a single mother of two, was forced to leave London and move to Newcastle because she was deemed “incapable of affording a London address” anymore. In reality, many families such as hers in the film were uprooted from their London homes, where they have lived for generations, because they could not afford their London address anymore, especially in the wake of the economic crisis of 2009. That meant not only taking their children out of schools and leaving their friends behind, but changing jobs and careers and sometimes saying goodbye to the very soil that their great-great-grandfathers called “home”.

Perhaps I, Daniel Blake is a little predictable and just a tad melodramatic, but the director and the scriptwriter must be commended for putting such an “uncomfortable” social issue in the UK on the global scene for everyone’s attention. It is not only the royal family and the Lords that live in the UK, but millions hard-working people who struggle on a daily basis and their hardship is often exacerbated by the system on which they are completely dependent. With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach proves that one does not need some extraordinary circumstances, celebrities, grand adventures or exotic locations to make a powerful, unforgettable film full of conviction – it is simply enough to show life as it is – a simple daily struggle known to many only too well. I, Daniel Blake is one of the finest examples of the realist cinema that focuses on social issues. The “beating heart” of this film is the spirit of a simple, unpretentious man who says “I am Daniel Blake, a decent citizen and a hardworking man, these are my circumstances, and I do not need to prove anything or apologise for anything to deserve basic human respect and dignity”. 9/10

13 thoughts on ““I, Daniel Blake” Review”

  1. I can tell you first hand how true this film is. I have been on both unemployment and disability benefits for the past 19 years, and hoops they make you jump through have become more unyielding ever since the Tories came to power in 2010. There is no flexibility to their rules, no empathy, or understanding to individual situations. They will sanction you at the drop of a hat if you are honest, yet somehow millions of pounds get defrauded every year for cheaters.

    Last year they stopped my disability benefit (awarded to me when I was diagnosed with Autism) and when I was called into a health assessment, they ignored my Autism/mental health issues and judged me on their general and rigid criteria, so I’ve had no money coming in for over a year now, just my savings. My appeal letters have thus far been ignored.

    So, I could sympathise with Daniel, Katie and all the unemployed characters in this film from the opening moments. Sadly, our out of touch Tory overlords have branded this film a “fiction” and “offensive”, because this bunch of uncaring millionaires have no idea what it is like to struggle nor do they care what their sanctions do to people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree and sympathise. Thanks for sharing your story. I just cannot understand myself the lack of empathy/sympathy and human understanding in the system. There is so much prejudice against unemployed and disabled people and the perception is that they are always to blame for their disability or unemployment and should be ashamed. In most cases, they should not be. This feeling of shame, despair and isolation only makes their situation worse. This is all so unfair and atrocious, actually. It is a sad state of affairs and I didn’t even know that Tories “branded the film as “fiction” and “offensive”. I wonder when was the last time they walked normal streets, listened to average people or been inside their homes? I am so glad this film was made. The power of cinema, I guess, in the most direct sense of this phrase.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I will most certainly watch it. I live in Croatia and can sympathize and fully understand the situation. After the earthquake which destroyed my home, and taking into account that I suffer from a serious health condition – the symptoms have only worsened after the tragedy – it was too hard for me to keep a job I got a few months ago, so I talked to my boss, but it resulted in a termination of the employment contract. Since I found the situation to be dire, delivered the necessary documentation to the social security office, asking for help (the welfare benefits are half a quarter of the minimum wage), but after I was asked twice to deliver new medical documentation, I was told that I will need to wait 6 months for the reply. So, these kind of stories are true to the bone, in many parts of Europe, not to say in the world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this wonderful and brave film!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, and for sharing your story! I remember your post about your home and I hope the situation is now better for you. I sympathise and also empathise, I guess, since I went through a similar experience regarding jobs. I have no idea why I did not watch the film in 2017, even though I mentioned in some festival posts I wrote at that time. I guess the appeal of certain films grows over time. I hope you like this quietly powerful, understated film and it will be very interesting for me to know your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your concern, the situation is in some ways better, in some worse, but it is mendable. I am in an apartment now, the state has subsidized it, so not everything is black when it comes to the help state offers or does not. My house is repairable, but at great cost. Now I am working in my father’s company, we are working together to earn enough money to repair it. So, it is better in many ways, although stressful and anxiety-provoking due to the level of uncertainty which still pertains. I emphatize with you as well when it comes to jobs, it’s really hard to find a healthy working environment, and in these parts of the world where I come from, to capitalize your cultural capital and knowledge at all. But one must fight, hope and endure!
        My friend has already mentioned this film to me, so I am aware of its existence, and merits. Your post only deepened my understanding of it, but I will have to watch it myself to get a full picture! When I watch it, I will get back to you with my thoughts!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.