★★★★ | I, DANIEL BLAKE
A middle-aged man is down on his luck. He can’t work because he’s got a heart condition while at the same time he’s having trouble navigating the UK’s benefits system. He is I, Daniel Blake and it’s a film that opened this weekend.
I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and directed by Ken Loach, is the story of one man, in Newcastle, and the trials and tribulations, and the humiliation and despair, he goes through in an attempt to receive benefits he thinks he’s entitled to. Stand-up comedian Dave Johns eloquently plays Blake, a man with so much heartbreak and despair where nothing goes his way.
We first meet Blake after he’s had a heart attack and can’t work anymore. So he applies for Employment and Support Allowance, but first, he must go through a rigorous telephone assessment by a health care professional who asks him some very intrusive questions. He then heads to the Jobcentre where he meets single mum Katie (Hayley Squires). She’s got two kids and has just been moved from London to Newcastle by the system because Newcastle is a cheaper place to house people on benefits. She barely has two pence to rub together, and she and Blake form a special bond. He’s there to help her around her house, he’s there to support her in any way possible, even after she shoplifts. And he’s there at her side when she makes a wrong decision to earn money. But it’s Blake who is spiralling down a hole; he can’t apply for benefits online because he’s never used a computer. Then he’s been judged fit to work, so his benefits stop, however, he doesn’t have a CV to look for work so he handwrites one. More despair comes his way when he is told that he doesn’t qualify for any benefit so he has to wait for a ‘decision-maker’ to decide his fate, while Katie has to rely on the local food bank in order to feed her family. It’s one thing after another for both in this very bleak film that shows how life really must be for people on benefits.
Johns, who has very few acting credits, is superb as Blake. He beautifully portrays a man down on luck who keeps losing his optimism and will to live along the way. Squires is just as good trying to survive in a town where she doesn’t know anyone with two kids who need to eat and have new clothes for school. Loach, who is British born, harshly displays the reality of the UK’s benefits system for people who are really in need, people who lose their dignity, navigating a system that works against them and not for them.
As Blake says in the film, “When you lost your self-respect, you’re done for.”
This film is a wake-up call with a strong message that this could happen to anyone of us.
Tim Baros writes film and theatre articles/ reviews for Pride Life and The American magazines and websites, as well as for Hereisthecity.com, Blu-RayDefinition.com and TheGayUK.com. He has also written for In Touch and TNT Magazines, SquareMile.com and LatinoLife.co.uk. He is a voting member for the UK Regional Critics Circle and the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA – of which he is the UK representative). In addition, he has produced and directed two films: The Shirt and Rex Melville Desire: The Musical.