When middle-aged carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) suffers a heart attack, he’s faced with a conundrum – his doctor forbids him to work, but he is declared ineligible for welfare payments. The only assistance he is eligible for is a job seeker’s allowance, a small amount of money with one condition – he must spend many, many hours a week looking for work. Having worked as a carpenter for thirty-or-so years, he is unbelievably experienced, however not in the eyes of the government. He hands out resumes but asked where the proof is, and the departmental mantra of “go online” – passing the buck, declaring that it’s someone else’s problem – is useless, as he’s never used a computer. He wants to work, is offered jobs, and the government tells him he must, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s been told not to. When he attends a resume making workshop, a smartly dressed and chipper instructor tells the Saturday morning crowd of desperate job seekers a tip – “stand out from the crowd”. But how can one stand out from the crowd when they’re just another number to be struck off a list?
It’s director Ken Loach’s anger at an immoveable, impersonal system that drives I, Daniel Blake. The territory may be familiar for Loach, regarded as being at the vanguard of social realist cinema in the UK, and the presentation conventional. But the majority of Loach’s films, covering social struggles from Irish independence and beyond, have been set in the past. It’s the urgency that makes the film so riveting and invigorating. The computer issues, the endless, endless going in circles is just emblematic as a larger problem – a system where humanity has become obsolete and unaccommodatable. Daniel, after all, is declared ineligible for disability support on the basis of not scoring enough points on a health check, a figure that somehow decides that he’s unwell.
Paul Laverty constructs the film as a build up of small frustrations that slowly build the worlds of Daniel and Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother in similar dead-end circumstances; seemingly minor things that continue to snowball until they cause the delicately constructed reality to come crashing down. Loach unobtrusively observes his actors as they navigate the never-ending cycle of dehumanisation. The film undoubtedly has an agenda, reinforced with a punch at the conclusion, but it’s necessary. This is a reality, a cycle that is nearly impossible to break free from. It’s built on points instead of personal interest, a loss of humanity that demands attention. When the inevitable comes, one flinches not from the turn being over the top. It’s from it, like the administrative incompentencies before it, being entirely too real.