Review: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

2016 has been a year in which protests are filling up much of our news airtime, and the us-versus-establishment struggles have been played out in so many different countries. This makes ‘I, Daniel Blake’, Ken Loach’s latest film about a unlikely friendship between a single mother and a middle-aged unemployed man, a fitting Palm D’Or winner for 2016.

Resting on a premise not unfamiliar to Singaporeans - going through an onerous application process, the film is a comfortably-paced expose on how difficult it is to claim assistance from welfare system, being a proxy for the establishment. Daniel Blake, played by newcomer to the big screen, comedian Dave Johns, is a carpenter who has left his job because of this medical condition and is trying to claim a sickness benefit from the government.

The first 5 minutes of the film sets the tone for what’s to come in the film - we hear, over a black blank screen, Daniel being interviewed by a consultant, for a sickness benefit. The consultant insists he answers all questions from a questionnaire that seems to skirt round the real health issue. Point made. More to come.
The job centre where people can make claims for various benefits and get matched with jobs is a focal point of the film. It turns out to a sinister place, as the film portrays, where one seems to get a sense that the system wants to do quite the opposite of what it was meant to do. Staff attending to applicants hide behind legal terms and jargon to make the benefits out of reach. Tracking the entire benefit application process in great detail with a matter-of-fact gaze at the flaws of this process serves to drive home the point about how ridiculous the experience is. The epitomy of this is a classroom room scene in which an instructor tells the class why everyone needs to a write a good CV like it was a matter of life-and death.

Another sardonic swipe at the system is illustrated in the digitisation of the entire application process to the T. Daniel, who bore the inconvenience of travelling to the job centre and getting stuck in the queue, was told, when he finally got to the end of the queue, that he had to fill up the application form online and no other physical forms of application, would be entertained. When his computer illiteracy was revealed, the film registered another new mark in its signature straddle between a wry sense of humour and utter frustration with the system.

Indeed, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, is a point-blank look at the hypocrisy of the welfare system that avoids sensationalism or heightened theatrics especially during moments of confrontation. Interestingly, it is not clear if the film’s manner of restraint is a characteristically British take on matters or a directorial stroke. But what is clear is the way the director has negotiated the key characters with the spaces, strangers and system. Ken has chosen to depict them in ordinarily mundane situations that are not necessarily cinematic, such as going through a job application. Yet, that ordinariness is pregnant with so much irony and humour.

The job centre is also the starting point of another pivotal character in the film - Katie Morgan, played by Hayley Squires. Katie is a single mother with two kids, who comes to our attention because she was late for her appointment at the job centre and had to face the consequence of sanctions on her benefits. Financially squeezed out of London, she had to settle down with her children in Daniel’s neighbourhood in New Castle. Hayley slips into her role effortlessly as a frustrated and weary mother and delivered pitch-perfect method acting. On method-acting, she revealed in an interview that she literally starved herself in order to mentally prepare herself for what has become a rather iconic scene in the film - the Food Bank.

The Food Bank stood out in the film, especially for a foreign viewer like myself, for it being an elaborate expansion of the concept of a hand-out. It also stood out for being uncannily realistic. Interviews with the filmmakers online have actually revealed that it was a real food collection exercise in progress and people in the queue were real food seekers. Of course, one cannot forget Katie’s ‘show-stopping’ moment of ripping open and consuming a can of food on the spot, a very raw moment that gripped our conscience.

Needless to say, Katie and Daniel got on comfortably, filling out the voids in each others’ lives. Delightfully, director Ken keeps their relationship ambiguous with Daniel being an empathetic, fellow-sufferer of a neighbour to Katie, though sometimes he goes up one tier, attaining a certain guardian angel status.

In fact, he really does become an ‘angel’ in the end, when almost at the finishing line of his battle with the benefits application, he suffers from a sudden heart attack in the toilet. Delivering an eulogy at what she called a ‘pauper’s funeral’, because they could only afford the cheapest 9am slot, she spoke about Daniel and his courage in fighting for what's right. The scene is stripped of any excessive sentimentality and Katie delivers the eulogy with a respectful sobriety, drawing attention to his life and deeds more than her own relationship with him.

Indeed, the film achieves its aim of being a quiet protest against the welfare system and succeeds because of its clear, microcosmic look at the experience of one person, without any attempt to magnify his experience in anyway. It's not David versus Goliath, just a small story about an ordinary man whose only weapon against the establishment was his spray-painted writing on the job centre's wall. Yet, like Daniel, who has earned supporters from the pub on the opposite of the road, this film has grown to be a ripple in a pond, drawing far greater attention to it than its unassuming form would suggest.

Review by Jeremy Sing

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