Bureaucracies make great villains. Faceless and absurd, they operate in such nefarious ways and are perfect machines for dehumanization. Bureaucracies are reliably inefficient, needlessly hierarchical, ruthlessly procedure-obsessed, and always plodding. The systems strip away a common sense of humanity while grinding people down until they submit.
In I, Daniel Blake, director Ken Loach attempts to restore the humanity to the working poor and working class who’ve been neglected by the system. It’s a spirited polemic about the modern failings of the UK’s welfare system and the NHS. The movie felt particularly urgent to me given this year’s rise of left-leaning populists like Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders.
And yet paradoxically, Loach restores the human face of the poor by using well-known tropes about poverty.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the US theatrical release of the film.]
I, Daniel Blake
Director: Ken Loach
Release Date: October 21, 2016 (UK); December 23, 2016 (USA)
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who’s been denied disability benefits after suffering a heart attack. He’s an everyman figure for the vulnerable elderly, and for anyone who’s been on hold with customer service for longer than necessary. Daniel doesn’t have any family or friends to help him in this situation, so he needs the social safety net. There’s a catch: in order to receive any benefits, he has to look for work, and yet he can’t work at the moment because his doctor says it will aggravate his heart condition.
His plight may sound familiar, but that’s because it’s a reality for many older people. The elderly and other vulnerable populations often face these kinds of helpless situations. Rather than receive individual assistance with computers or paperwork, the system wants to push him through and out as quickly as possible–men and women chewed up and spat. While Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty may heighten the dire situation, Johns’ performance grounds Daniel. He’s an individual man and a common man metaphor, and achingly human.
Daniel’s path crosses with Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single-mother from London trying to resettle in New Castle. Hers is a life of constant denial. Spaghetti for the kids at dinner, and just an apple for herself until morning. She can’t find work because there aren’t any jobs, and so that cycle of denial continues. In one of the movie’s most moving and empathetic moments, we watch Katie overcome by hunger at a food bank. She breaks down. Squires brings a lot of heart to her performance, but in this scene Katie’s courage has faltered. There’s only a debased shame. Somewhere, mixed in, there’s also dread.
Together, Daniel and Katie offer a glimmer of hope for the people failed by the system. When vulnerable people slip through the country’s social safety net, perhaps their only shot at dignity is to be there for one another. And perhaps because this plight is so familiar–seen on film, TV, in families or down the street–struggling people can feel a little less alone in the world. The situation in I, Daniel Blake is so specific to the UK, and yet the pain and the hardship is relatable throughout the western world. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing can help reduce that sense of hopeless desperation that accompanies poverty.
It’s a meek hope, though, a faint and brief glimmer, which may explain the fervor of the film, like something off a Billy Bragg record. I, Daniel Blake feels like a rallying cry for reform and greater egalitarianism, or at least some restoration of humanity and kindness to systems that have become so good at stripping humanity away. If the characters seem familiar, it’s probably because the same tragedies happen so often and have happened for so long to so many. If the story beats sound familiar, it’s probably because the cadence of protest chants often have a common pattern. I, Daniel Blake is ostensibly about a man named Daniel and a woman named Katie, but I know these people by other names and with other faces.