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Forestalling disgrace amid a welfare nightmare

Tim Kroenert |  22 November 2016


I, Daniel Blake (MA). Director: Ken Loach. Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Kema Sikazwe. 101 minutes

In his essay 'Chicago Christmas, 1984', American writer George Saunders recalls learning the value of money after watching a roofer colleague, John, gamble away his Christmas bonus during a staff party. Saunders, 26 and 'at the embarrassing end of a series of attempts at channelling Kerouac', was himself broke, living in his aunt's basement, and under pressure from his girlfriend to earn a living.

That night, seeing John, 'gentle-voiced and dignified' and a father of 14, goaded into gambling away his hard-earned bonus, shook Saunders' notions of being romantically penniless. 'I thought of my aunt, who worked three jobs and whom I had not yet paid a dime for food, and of my girlfriend, who now paid whenever we went out, which was never ... Finally I got it: money forestalled disgrace.'

Money, and the indignity and hardship that can attend its lack, are concerns central to I, Daniel Blake. Equal parts comedy and tragedy, the film sees veteran English director Ken Loach continue a career-long interest in the lives of the working class, forging a new blue-collar hero in the figure of his titular lead character, a joiner forced onto welfare at 59 due to a heart condition.

Daniel (Johns) is on doctor's orders not to work. But obtaining the benefits to which he is entitled proves to be a challenge of Kafka-esque proportions. He is grilled by a welfare officer about every aspect of his physical health — except, that is, the only relevant one, his heart. Later, he runs afoul of the agency's 'online by default' processes. Daniel has never used a computer in his life.

Dave Johns and Hayley Squires in I, Daniel BlakeThe welfare system as Daniel experiences it is a bureaucratic nightmare, populated by condescending Health Care Professionals, shadowy and calculating Decision Makers, managers who loom over their clients like stern parents, and caseworkers under pressure to stifle any human compassion for their desperate supplicants. Daniel braves the farce with incredulity and waning patience.


"Katie's arc demonstrates even more baldly than Daniel's the cost to dignity and self-care for those on the margins of society, neglected by the state."


Yet Daniel, portrayed by Johns with stoic good humour even amid frustration and despair, embodies the empathy and selflessness that is so lacking from these 'human services'. He exchanges barbs with his young black neighbour (Sikazwe), who can be a pest and runs a racket selling sneakers imported cheaply from China (much to Daniel's bemusement); but the two, also, are clearly friends.

And witnessing single mother Katie's (Squires) own heated run-in with the welfare office, Daniel sidelines his own predicament in order to come to her aid. Katie's arc demonstrates even more baldly than Daniel's the cost to dignity and self-care for those on the margins of society, neglected by the state. At the same time the friendship that develops between her and Daniel is deep and beautiful.

Loach locates wells of warmth and humour in his characters' shared humanity, contrasting it with the coldness of The System. He needs to, as he finds scarce hope elsewhere. Moments of apparent grace are often quickly overshadowed; see, notably, Katie's experience after being caught shoplifting sanitary products from a convenience store. Disgrace, it seems, can only be forestalled for so long.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

This film is not before time ... Having personal experience with the welfare system ... And bring ill equipped to deal with it ... Gave me an insight into a brutal and inhumane system that doesn't want you to exist. Unless you have encountered such inhumanity its hard to believe that such a system exists right in the midst of our "wealthy compAssionate and generous" nation. The worst part was that most of the friends I had prior to finding myself and my 3 children in this situation simply did not believe me about the system. So I will go to this film to remind myself of my own truth and to help spread the word about the reality for so many good people who have to endure such humiliation and meanness. ... I will then be able to remind others that 'there but for the grace of God go I'.

Mary Tehan 24 November 2016

i saw this movie yesterday, and cried at the way that both Daniel and Katie were treated by the system, which in turn brutalised its own workers, with occasional glimmers of care. but the kindness and goodness of so many of the people who were suffering under the system was what moved me most. Daniel was a gentle, loving man with many skills and talents, not least for human relationships. our system here looks better than the UK, but the result for people is the same. it is Kafka in action. even as a person on an aged pension, I am shocked at the erosion of the welfare system and how it treats people like me. and I am a straightforward one. the computer issues in the movie were funny, except that they were true. it was noticeable that the kindness provided to Daniel in the office was provided by people of all colours, gender and ages. that gives me hope.

Helen Kane 24 November 2016

Terrific film and review, Tim! There were some gospel moments when the less bloated plutocratic 'life-giver' from behind the counter actually offered to help Danny - akin to many of the graced moments in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'! Go see, everyone, for a boost to hope's dreams against life's death-inducing challenges.

MLF 25 November 2016

MLF captured it well Tim-excellent review and another brilliant offering from Ken Loach and colllaborators. Have just caught IDB before it departs the big screen-working my way through your '10'! So many layers in this movie-the captured and the free, the machine and the parts, goodness in the face of ghastliness (in the name of the State). The Tyneside has a darkside. For the Grace of God, go 'I, Daniel Blake'. As Noam Chomsky said: “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.”

Patrick 06 January 2017

Thank you for this excellent review. It's a film I hope many will watch. And thank you Patrick for that powerful quote from Noam Chomsky. It's chilling and scary but sadly very true.

robert van zetten 10 January 2017

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