Unusual for a Screen Unseen, this was a film that I had definitely heard of, saw the trailer for beforehand and pretty much knew what it was all about. So unlike Midnight Special and War on Everyone, there was no real period of fumbling around in the dark, trying to get a feel of just what kind of film this was as I was pretty well informed as to what it was.
Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film concerns Newcastle carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) who, after having had a heart attack and is deemed medically unfit to work, attempts to claim Employment and Support allowance but is forced by the system into applying for Jobseekers Allowance, finding himself mired in a world of red tape, petty bureaucracy and endless online application forms, not aided by the fact that the essential technology needed to progress is completely foreign to him. He also strikes up a friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a mother of two who has been forced into relocating from London, uprooting her and her children’s lives and who, with just twelve pounds to her name, desperately struggles to provide for herself and her two young children.
Much like Hell or High Water, this film is essentially about the idea of poverty as a disease. Throughout the film, especially in a particularly affecting scene at a food bank, we clearly see how difficult life is for a lot of British people and just how ridiculous the welfare system can be. We share in Daniel’s frustration and anger as he endures being put on hold for hours, being given the run around by ineffective jobsworths and endless online technobabble. The film effectively shows how soul destroying the welfare system can be and how powerless and despondent it can make you feel.
The best scene in the film happens in the aforementioned food bank and I’m just going to go ahead and admit my massive ignorance here: I was barely aware that they even existed so clearly, the film is successful in showing the dire state of affairs in certain areas. In the pivotal scene, Hayley Squires’ character is picking up food for her family but, having essentially starved herself for a few days in order to save money, she takes a tin of baked beans, takes off the lid and desperately eats some of the contents. After she is noticed, it all becomes too much and, despite having previously held herself together, she suddenly breaks down into tears, comforted by Daniel and the food bank workers. This is clearly the scene where Katie reaches breaking point, through starvation and desperation, and watching it all overwhelm her is so moving and affecting. This scene is also wonderful in showing genuine human kindness and a sense of solidarity towards your fellow man in trying times.
Through all of this, Loach is never preachy or melodramatic, he is simply presenting these things as a matter of fact, giving us the truth no matter how bad it hurts. He clearly has a strong opinion on these incredibly relevant social issues and the film is a strong reminder about the need for change in this country.
The performances of I, Daniel Blake are genuine and laudable. Daniel himself is a very empathetic everyman and Dave Johns plays him very well; the audience is clearly able to share in his frustration and annoyance at the system and at the same time, we are occasionally able to laugh along with him in moments of humour. His friendship with Katie’s two children is heartwarming and the scenes where he teaches them about efficient, cost cutting ways of heating a house, as well as many other things, are wonderful. I particularly loved it when he gave Katie’s daughter a set of wind chimes, complete with wooden fish that he carved himself.
And equally as laudable is the performance of Hayley Squires, who takes on the role of Katie. Her character, much like Daniel’s, has had her life thrown into turmoil due to forces beyond her control and is doing everything that she can in order to provide for her children. Squires’ performance is genuine and we effortlessly support her throughout. The chemistry between her and Dave Johns is perfect and both of these characters are very strong leads.
There is also an almost complete absence of music throughout the film, the only music being the insufferable, and all too familiar, “on hold” music and Ronald Binge’s “Sailing By”. You know, the theme for the oh-so-exciting Shipping Forecast! Clearly, this is a film that requires no musical accompaniment and Loach lets the on screen images speak for themselves, allowing the audience to make their own minds up about what it is they’re supposed to be feeling.
In a post Brexit Britain, this kind of film is incredibly relevant and important.
A film with a message, this is a relevant, powerful, affecting drama about the suffering of real people, the ineffectiveness of the welfare system, family and friendship.