Guest Review: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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Directed By: Ken Loach
Written By: Paul Laverty
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy
Runtime: 1 hr 40 minutes

If film is a mirror on society then the sheer volume of recent movies about the ugliness of the post-GFC world is a reflection of the scale of devastation it has caused. Most are essays in poverty that explore the loss of humanity for ordinary people. The film I, Daniel Blake (2016) is another in this genre. It is an intense portrait of an ordinary man who struggles to retain dignity in an Orwellian world. Far from entertaining, it is gritty, raw, and unrelenting.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a rough-speaking but likable 59-year-old tradesman in Newcastle, England. He is recovering from a serious heart attack and lives alone. Unable to work, he does what thousands like him do in such circumstances: he applies for support allowance so he can pay his bills until health returns. What happens next is not the point, rather it is how it happens that will make you cringe. Form-filling becomes an obstacle course for preventing people like Daniel from getting help and the staff who process him absolve themselves of responsibility through constant referral to the “decision-maker” who is never there. Denied support allowance, he must apply for a job-seeker benefit that requires 35 hours a week of documented job hunting. His protestations are officially sanctioned and he loses all support.

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In the midst of his own inhuman treatment by a soul-less bureaucracy Daniel tries to help a single mother with two young children who is also crushed by the system. Katie (Hayley Squires) has moved from a homeless hostel and is living on food handouts because her benefits have been stopped. She finds ‘affordable accommodation’ that Daniel offers to repair and he becomes a father figure. Still unable to buy shoes for her children, Katie finds the kind of work that shocks Daniel but is the last resort for many abandoned by a social welfare system with gaping holes in its safety net. Desperate to help her, Daniel vents his frustration through graffiti on the welfare office wall and briefly becomes an urban hero.

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This is a disturbing film that many audiences will find confronting, particularly those who think they live in a caring society that supports people in need. The pace is slow and the dialogue often terse, but that’s how life is at the bottom. The subdued cinematography and colour palette accentuates the drabness of life for the dispossessed. Perfectly cast, the two main actors fill their roles with an authentic voice for countless ordinary people who fall on hard times. There is no joy in this film and whatever humour you find is there to make the story bearable. But in a world that moves inexorably towards a hard-right social conscience, it is a film that cries out to be seen and heard.

4Reels

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘I, Daniel Blake’? Well, what did you think? 

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9 thoughts on “Guest Review: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

    1. Hey Cindy! I think you could say that most Ken Loach films are depressing. Btw, I had the privilege to chat w/ the writer Paul Laverty who’s from Scotland a few years ago, super nice guy!

  1. “But in a world that moves inexorably towards a hard-right social conscience, it is a film that cries out to be seen and heard.” Such a great conclusion to this review, Richard.
    I did hear about this movie and despite it’s depressing plotline, I’m gonna watch it because, well, it’s interesting and surely great.

    1. Yes Richard is a terrific reviewer! I think Ken Loach’s films tend to be quite depressing, but it has a lot of intriguing social issues.

  2. Thanks for the kind comments. Describing this film as depressing is understandable but a thought that should not dissuade anyone from seeing it. We see films for different reasons and this one is far from entertaining. It is such powerful social commentary without the soap-box polemic that we find in some films. Just an aside: I’m studying a unit in Literary Theory as part of my Masters and am spending a lot time looking at how poetry was the literary medium for challenging the status quo in the pre-modern era (and still is for many). This is precisely the role now taken up by film. Its mass accessibility gives it unrivalled power to talk about the failures of modern society. I’m hoping filmmakers of 2017 are busy creating the stories we need to see and hear as civilisation faces its greatest threats in half a century.

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