Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Ken Loach was one of the big names of socially conscious television dramas. Other names followed him: Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke, Antonia Bird. When Ken Loach became too radical for programmers, his name disappeared from television screens; instead, he found work directing an advert for McDonalds. Yet from the 90s onwards, he has consistently released films, from the urban life of Sweet Sixteen (2002) and Looking for Eric (2009), to the exploration of Irish history in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014).
I, Daniel Blake sets out to critique the Tory austerity in the most pointed way I’ve seen. New Labour and Tony Blair found criticism in everywhere from the urban life in the films of Andrea Arnold to the political satire of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who (2005-10) and his relationship with Bush. But today’s dissenting voices come in the form of pig-fucking episodes of Black Mirror (2011-present), the occasional documentary, and online alternative media. But the last time British cinema decided to focus on the political and social problems of our time seems a long time ago. EastEnders and Casualty, born in the era of Thatcherist critique, may occasionally touch upon austerity and other topical issues, yet it is wrapped up within unending, infinite narratives and copious amounts of melodrama.
But it is 2015 Tories (there’s a brief reference to Iain Duncan Smith), and very much a reflection of the first five years of Tory hegemony. Were Loach producing the film a year later, it would be a different experience, laced with nationalism, hate crimes and non-commitments to Brexit.
I, Daniel Blake is neither entertainment nor escapism; it is confrontation. Odeon’s most recent redesign might stress in its idents for the audience to relax and let all their troubles go away. Even the film’s distributor stresses what I, Daniel Blake is not – Entertainment One. The film is difficult to watch: there are moments of colour through Daniel’s interactions with single mum Katie and her family, yet often it is slow.
Loach’s style feels true to life, but it isn’t documentary. Rather than the handheld, always-in-motion camera of the documentary, Loach often uses the static camera. Composition isn’t key here; Loach merely wants to depict what is happening, without any flourishes. The events are key. Loach leaves out what to another director could be key scenes: Daisy relates to her mum her experience of being bullied at school because of her broken shoes. We don’t need to see the bullies; the exposition is enough. Neither do we need to see Daniel’s heart attack at work, or to flashback to the death of his wife. The film is about the present.
I, Daniel Blake is upsetting because it is real. I watched this film with a friend from Newcastle. To me, a mere southerner, there still feels a sense of distance between National Trust properties and fish and chips and northern, post-industrial cities. To my friend, the film is literally on his doorstep. Daniel and Katie feel like the characters you’d see in a Guardian article, profiling disparate victims of draconian DWP guidelines from Newcastle.
Daniel, 59, a carpenter for 40 years who suffered a heart attack
Katie, a young mum struggling to support her children
What Loach does in the film is connect these two lives together beyond token representation. They are not paragraph summaries, but fully fleshed out lives. They both have identities.
Daniel’s work is his identity: he is proud of being a carpenter, spending his rest time still doing woodwork. He doesn’t just buy Dylan and Daisy a plastic mobile from the shop, he builds them one. His career is generational, to be passed onto the next. But the other careers we see in the film never feel like identities; they’re just jobs. The security guard at the shop never wanted to be a security guard. Katie doesn’t want to be an escort, but she feels she has no choice. We hear of 16 years olds who don’t put their work in, from the man at the garage Daniel gives his CV to. Even the woman Daniel speaks to at the Job Centre feels constrained by the system she is an unwilling participant in.
Daniel exists on the cusp of modernity, as a dying yet invisible generation. He isn’t computer literate; he still listens to cassette tapes; he’s interested in the simple things. New generations are growing up around him: his neighbour China, a young black football fan forced to sell counterfeit shoes; Katie’s life as a young, single mum. But even Katie cannot be a voice of modernity: her life at home is Victorian, candles used in lieu of lighting, without proper heating, forced to starve because her children come first. Daniel’s way of doing things: neighbourly favours, human compassion, word of mouth – is being destroyed by digitalisation and standardisation. These fears feel like the 80 year old Loach screaming at the viewer “I can’t use the mouse!” – but it isn’t an unwarranted criticism.
The irony of being forced into a box is the myth of individuality: Daniel is forced to undergo a CV workshop. The words are written as if taken verbatim from a government guide or a business’ website – you need to stand out, be distinct from joe public, be the best. I’ve heard the same words parroted through GCSEs, though sixth form, through university – but it’s still just a myth. It feels like it could be a scene out of a modern version of Kes (1969) – Daniel is reduced to a schoolchild, not an adult, by the guy in the suit who thinks he knows better than him.
Beyond its portrayal of human relationships, I, Daniel Blake‘s greatest achievement is its portrayal of bureaucracy. We as viewers may be aware vaguely of these issues, but Loach refuses to condense it down to something comfortable. The film opens with a black screen, as the disembodied voice of the DWP repeats over and over: “answer the question. Answer the question. Answer the question.” It feels like an argument with Siri, or the distorted images of Black Mirror. But this is reality. The muzak as the phone is on hold repeats over and over: a cruel joke, but we are reminded of its sense of humiliation. But Loach is still complex: the DWP is not soulless, nor without good aim, yet he presents how targets and strict schedules and tickboxes choke out any sense of human compassion – the case with so many privatised endeavours, from Boots to Sports Direct to the DWP.
In trying to present reality, Loach avoids the desire to lace the film with quotable, poetic monologues. Though Daniel functions as a sassy “FUCK YOU” to privatisation, it never feels like hyperbole. Even when the film comes its closest to magical realism, it still feels real. Daniel’s graffiti on the side of the Job Centre is both a moment of empowerment and the depths of his desperation and weakness. Passersby and stag parties stop and stare; the entire world comes to a halt. He could easily become a mythic figure, passed down through anecdotes: “guess what I saw this guy do in town earlier.” It seems fitting that it is this moment of power which follows the UK’s theatrical run in its poster. Loach could have chosen to end the film here, but he is wise in his choice to keep going. This moment is defining; an easy meme for social media, yet Loach acknowledges that this moment is fleeting.
When Loach presents Daniel about to go on trial to present his claim, he twists what should be a moment of empowerment into a moment of harsh reality, turning the film into a morality play – Daniel suffers another heart attack, and passes away. He becomes just another name, forced out of his individuality through a ‘pauper’s funeral’, given a moving memorial by Katie. Her words bring voice to the message of the film in a fraction of its runtime. We are simultaneously aware of Daniel’s individuality, and of how unremarkable he is. His name refuses to alliterate; he’s just another old bloke. When the woman at the Job Centre warns Daniel she’s seen this story play out numerous times before to good, hardworking people, she reminds us as viewers that this narrative is not uncommon. Indeed, in one scene in the reception, as Daniel leaves the shot, we see another man take his place, looking identical to him.
Yet it is the film’s unremarkableness which may prove its most difficult at capturing wider audiences. On opening day, I sat with 8 other people in the Odeon. Socialist friends seem entranced with the film, urging everyone to see it. But beyond the echo chamber, whether the film changes any people’s minds, or whether they even consider the possibility of having their mind changed, remains to be seen.
It may not be as flashy as The Neon Demon, nor have the adrenaline rush of Captain America: Civil War, nor have the perfectly composed visuals of Lemonade, yet it remains one of the most harrowing films of the year.