Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty (screenplay)
This incredibly poignant film, while commenting on the UK welfare system specifically, surely will touch most Western audiences while giving them something to chuckle about. The sense of humour here is extremely sure of itself, helped immensely by the fact that the lead and title character is played by a comedian. The comedy is needed too, as this isn’t a particularly happy story.
Now, this film’s message could certainly be seen as a ‘first-world-problem’ by many, which perhaps is true, but the reality and emotional depth of the film overrides any criticism that could arise from this point. Critics of Loach will almost certainly try to label this film as propaganda, which in reality is… Well, bollocks, to use a UK term. It simply depicts the truth, and it is that truth that shines through; Loach and collaborator Paul Laverty researched this topic extensively before shooting. They had their actors do the same. There is no exaggeration here save for the final act; this is what it is really like for poor souls like Daniel Blake.
What is really highlighted, and accurately so, is the fact that the unemployed are looked down on in society. I certainly feel that way. In the opening scene, Daniel is trying to talk to a ‘health-care professional’ so he can apply for income assistance due to a recent heart attack. The fact that his doctors have all told him that he cannot work in the immediate future is completely ignored by this worker, and Daniel’s frustration is met by a very typical “Can you please calm down sir?”
Despite its seriousness, this is an incredibly amusing back and forth that involves everything but the man’s heart, and after a series of inane questions that he has already answered on paper, asking about his fingers, his arms, his bowels, Daniel’s frustration grows further as he finally asks, “are you a doctor? A nurse?” No, she is a ‘health-care-professional’, an incredibly meaningless title. His patience wavers as he finally demands, “Why aren’t you asking me about me bloody heart!?”
This comment is made even more powerful given the comedic back and forth that preceded it.
Despite his doctors’ advice, this health-care-worker, who unsurprisingly works for the government, decides that he is fit for work. This begins the merry-go-round of form-filling as Daniel is put on hold for hours, and when he is able to talk to someone they simply abide by the rigid rules and offer no help whatsoever. The fact that he can’t use a computer certainly doesn’t help matters.
While he is in a welfare office, he sees a similarly unfair situation unfolding between a twenty-something single mother and her two children. The protocol abiding staff member proceeds to ignore this woman’s situation, and as Katie gets frustrated, she is accused of being aggressive and security close in.
Daniel obviously feels her pain and chimes in, telling these office drones that they aren’t helping anyone, as they refuse to empathise with individuals’ unique situations. Katie has been relocated to Newcastle, and without her support network of friends and family in London, is very fortunate to meet Daniel after they are both thrown out of the office. Given Daniel’s kind and giving nature, the two become friends as Daniel helps Katie around her new house she has been allocated, while her two children take an instant liking to this decent, honest man.
Daniel’s struggles aren’t depicted in many scenes, but this withdrawal of information amplifies the power of scenes where we do see how much he is struggling. The same applies to Katie, who at one point is waiting in a long line outside a church to get some food. While being helped with necessities, she quickly turns her back to tear open a can of cold beans and eats them by hand. She has obviously put her children before herself, and her hunger is so bad that she is willing to dismiss any self-dignity. This scene is handled with expertise, as there is not a touch of melodrama. It is simply the raw and ugly truth, and the first time we really see the seriousness of her situation.
Soon Katie resorts to other, not so legal means for income to support her children, much like Daniel’s young neighbour who is being jerked around by his employer. Daniel refuses to go down this path, but a lack of any income is hurting him. Because he didn’t qualify for assistance due to his health, he is forced to apply for a job-seeker type allowance. This demands proof that he look for jobs all week, despite knowing that his doctor has told him he cannot work; an awfully common paradox.
When he returns to the welfare office with handwritten notes regarding who he has contacted, the worker assigned to him simply says that it isn’t good enough. She wants more proof. His handwritten resume is also considered not good enough, despite the obvious fact that the man can barely use a computer, let alone afford one. It is heart-breaking and awfully similar to experiences many have down under, as an illness that renders someone unable to work is frowned upon, despite the fact that these people WANT TO WORK! I found myself shaking my head many times as I was reminded often of my own experiences dealing with the welfare system in Australia.
The balance of comedy and drama is handled with ease, and allows the film to breathe and not grow into a depressing mess. It is sad, no doubt, but the witty script and the stellar acting hammer the point home. This may be a political movie, but it is also a very moving drama that is peppered with laughs as well as deeply emotional moments. The fact that Daniel Blake is just a regular bloke helps too; Dave Johns as Daniel is the highlight of the film, an incredibly loveable chap who believes in helping others; in community. He shines in every scene, and despite the wealth of barriers that are thrown his way, he always seems to be able to laugh it off. But what really stands out is the realism of each situation. This is not exaggerated, nor is it prevalent only in the UK. As far as social realism films go, this one simply must be seen. The only flaw I can think of is that many will probably find this slow and subsequently boring, which is sad but not unexpected.
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