That a film like I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in a year when radical politics has risen to challenge the establishment is significant. There are those who would try to disregard its bleak vision of a man beaten down by an illogical, unfair and even inhumane system as being ‘unrealistic’, but these are the same people who have never been in the position of this film’s central character. Any of us who have ever had to visit a job centre in the UK will have empathy with Daniel Blake.
I find the state of the welfare system in the UK to be a great irony. Originally set up as a noble cause, to provide for those in a vulnerable position, whether currently looking for work or unable to do so, it has become something quite different. A system, under the Conservative government especially, that assumes everyone using it is some kind of scrounger exploiting those of us who are ‘hard working’.
Therefore it now operates under a set of guidelines, checks and balances that take away the human aspect. Claimants sit at a desk where they are interrogated and, if the exact answers are not provided, if everything is not done strictly by the book, they risk losing everything. The reason we often hear to justify this is that the government wants to “encourage people to find work”, and seemingly their way of doing this is to make life as difficult and uncomfortable as possible for those who don’t have a job. As if not having a job somehow amounts to living a dream that everyone who works is missing out on. The reality for most of us, of course, is precisely the opposite. As humans, work is the bread and butter that gives our life meaning; most of us not only want to work, but like to work, and those who don’t fit that bracket are, in actual fact, few and far between – yet it is that minority who are often cited as reasons to punish the majority. It is they who get the headlines in tabloid press.
I, Daniel Blake showcases this questionable system in a simple but powerful and poignant way. It is, in similar (if less dramatic) fashion to Son of Saul, a film that transcends its medium. To give some kind of rating for its ‘entertainment’ value almost feels beside the point, though it does still somehow manage to entertain.
Dave Johns, a stand-up comedian when he’s not acting, plays the title character. His performance ensures, despite the somewhat depressing subject matter, that we ourselves never feel down while watching the absurdity unfold. There is an empathetic quality to the character that’ll put a smile on your face as he deals with the hand he’s been dealt. Such is the connection formed with him over the course of the film that it’s absurd to think anyone could accuse this of feeling unrealistic, even if they do point out that it’s fiction, which it is only in the strictest sense. Daniel Blake may not be a real person, but there are a lot of real people who feel that they are Daniel Blake.
Some may feel put off by director Ken Loach and his heavy-handed approach to social issues, but I can’t stress enough just how important this film feels at such a time as this. The winds of change are blowing in politics right now and I, Daniel Blake raises an issue that could be part of that change. It would require some to swallow their pride and admit this isn’t simply a “work of fiction”, but the message will at some point be taken heed of. If there’s one film this year that I’d encourage everyone – regardless of personal taste – to support above all others, it would (probably) be this one.
10 / 10