Daniel Blake, the protagonist in Ken Loach’s latest social-realist film, has been heralded the latest everyman, with politicians, writers, activists and empathetic film-fans taking on his mantle through social media.
Daniel’s very real story of poverty, illness, loyalty, defiance and chronic failure of the receding British welfare system, has made people question, what if I was Daniel Blake?
The film opens as the 59-year-old geordie with a big, but failing, heart that has left him unfit for work, is being put through a government-appointed private medical exam, which, based on his capability to walk 50 metres and raise an arm “as if to put something in your top pocket”, deems him ineligible for employment and support allowance, proposing Job Seeker’s allowance instead.
As he wades through the drudge of antipathetic bureaucracy of CV workshops and online forms and call centres, in order to appeal this decision, he meets and befriends Londoner Katie, and her two children Daisy and Dylan, who have been relocated, by the government, to take-up a council house in Newcastle – far away from her mum.
The disorientated young family also faces benefit sanctions, as punishment for Katie arriving late for her jobcentre appointment, and so is left desolate in their new house, without heating and only the £12 that Katie has in her purse for food. The scene of them in the food bank is the most painstaking of the film, as Katie desperately gorges on cold baked beans, having undergone a frugal diet of fruit, so that she can feed her children.
Food poverty is just one of the daily struggles the single mother and an ailing widower face, and each are forced to do things they don’t want to do, in order that they can cope and nurse their modest aspirations, which for Katie are getting back to her ‘books’ and building a home for her children, while for Daniel it is simply to be treated with respect.
Neither can be seen as scroungers, or thieves – terms, cited in political discourse, that this film seeks to challenge. In fact they are fiercely proud and independent, which, due to their situation, forces them into social isolation.
Yet for all its anger at the injustice of Daniel and Katie’s mistreatment, Paul Laverty’s insightful script captures a wry British humour, which translates the exasperating digital-faceless service at the jobcentre into touching scenes of Daniel pawing at his computer mouse, struggling to navigate his computer cursor; or pacing around his apartment while he is left on hold for an hour and a half.
These ‘laugh or cry moments’ best depict defiant Britain – and it is refreshing to see a very homegrown film tackle timely issues. It is only right that Daniel’s breaking point, where he defaces the jobcentre, by spray painting his demands- starting ‘I, Daniel Blake’ lends itself to the title of the film. It, like Daniel, demands to be seen, and demands to be heard and have some of its more troubling questions answered.