Film Review: I, Daniel Blake

Ronnie McCluskey reviews Ken Loach’s latest film, an excoriating takedown of the Tory government’s record on welfare.

In I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach tackles a familiar subject: the quest of the individual to overcome the parasitic forces of circumstance that threaten to drown him.

Sadly, the insuperable difficulties facing our eponymous protagonist are not fictional constructs but a series of real-world hoops applicants must jump through to claim vital support from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Tory torture

Of course, this is no secret. The Tory government’s record on welfare is truly abysmal. From their toxic bedroom tax to their savage reforms on disability benefits, they have worsened the lives of countless vulnerable citizens, driving impoverished families to food banks in their droves. Their fanatical, target-focused approached has all but eradicated the notion of compassion in the workings of the state when it comes to welfare and benefits.

I, Daniel Blake blows apart the oft-peddled ‘We are all in this together’ twaddle. The Palme d’Or winning film follows the story of Daniel, a 61-year-old carpenter who is signed off work on doctor’s orders following a heart attack. His livelihood threatened, the widower attempts to claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA) but finds doors slammed in his face at every turn.

No hope, no jobs

The picture opens on a black screen, with the viewer left to listen in on a demeaning telephone assessment Daniel must pass to qualify for ESA. He doesn’t score enough points (just think about the ridiculousness of that for a second) and so begins his downwards spiral into abject poverty. Along the way he meets Katie, a hard-up young mother who’s been ‘sanctioned’ for showing up late to an appointment at the Jobcentre. Furious at the centre’s intractable staff, Daniel – who is forced to claim JSA while demonstrating the painstakingness of a job search he is patently unfit to undertake – rises to his feet, raises a strongly-worded objection and is thrown out by security.

Daniel, like many unfortunate enough to be signed off work, would much rather punch his clock and earn a living doing what he knows best, but from the moment he’s rejected for ESA, he becomes yet another number in the matrix, yet another figure in the balance sheet. While experiencing all manner of difficulties in receiving state support, he busies himself by helping Katie fix up her new digs. Having moved from London with her two young children, Katie is now living in a substandard house that is falling down around her.

From their toxic bedroom tax to their savage reforms on disability benefits, the Tories have worsened the lives of countless vulnerable citizens

It’s not an easy watch – there’s a particularly heartbreaking scene in a food bank – but this is surely the film of the year. The most true to life, the most emotive, the most real. Despite the grinding frustration provoked by the sheer, unavoidable hopelessness of their situations, Daniel and Katie exhibit admirable defiance in the face of a system seemingly engineered to beat them down and strip them of the most basic dignity.

Unsurprisingly, Iain Duncan Smith – the apparatchik who architected £15billion worth of welfare cuts over five years – has been critical of I, Daniel Blake, arguing that it presents a skewed picture of reality. But this film was not made for IDS: it was made to expose his and his party’s shameful failings in office, and to highlight the injustices perpetrated on many ordinary and hard-working people. I urge you to see it.

 —★★★—

Words by Ronnie McCluskey