Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), the titular character of Ken Loach’s new film on working class Britons, is the salt of the earth. A 59-year old widower, Dan lives in a blue-collar Newcastle housing complex, trades good-natured barbs with his young neighbor, China (Kema Sikazwe), and supports himself with a career in carpentry. Well, he did until a heart attack forced him into a doctor-prescribed hiatus, an off-screen event that triggers the film’s unflinching exploration of maddening bureaucracy and the violence of broken systems.
I, Daniel Blake, the unexpected winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2016, opens at the start of this uncertain period in Dan’s life with a black screen. As opening credits blink in and out, we listen to a woman ask a series of mechanical questions and a man—revealed by an abrupt cut to be Daniel Blake—answer them. The questions, inane attempts to gauge Dan’s health, will determine his eligibility for welfare while he awaits permission to resume work. Despite the exasperating back and forth, Dan promptly receives notice that he is “healthy” (a relative term) and will not receive benefits.
Thus begins an excruciating wild goose chase as Dan seeks to appeal the decision and somehow earn a living in the many months it will take for his request to jump its way through bureaucratic hoops. His best bet is jobseeker’s allowance, a privilege that requires its beneficiaries to attend a resume writing workshop and offer proof that they are looking for work, actions that seem all the more ridiculous from Dan’s point of view: he has a job to which he desperately wants to return, but cannot.
There is something uncommon about Johns’ face. With kind, deep set eyes and a nose prone to redness, Johns is almost completely bald—a fact that ages him far beyond his scripted 59 years. It is this disconnect, between Johns’ hair loss and other more youthful attributes (his smooth skin, his posture) that is interesting; believably, Dan could be a range of ages. This gives Dan’s restrained despair and struggle for dignity a universality, adding to this sense of I know him. And when a film is intent on uplifting the hidden corners of its world, this trait is a treasure.
After witnessing her confront the employees at the benefits office, Dan befriends a young woman named Katie (Haley Squires) and her two small children. They have just been evicted from a London apartment and now occupy a drippy fixer-upper with no money for heat and barely enough for groceries. Katie, determined to make a life for them in Newcastle, stays up late trying to piece together the broken house and skips meals in order to feed her kids, but the vicious cycle of poverty is quickly becoming too much for even her to bear.
Squires’ performance is truly gut-wrenching. Her moments of full-blown anguish are heartbreaking (a scene at a food bank is arguably one of the film’s hardest to watch), but equally effective is her look of resolve when her daughter whispers that her shoes fell apart at school (again) or her expression of quiet gratitude when Dan coaxes a question out of her shy son.
It is true that Loach does nothing to probe the similar pressures surely weighing on those unfeeling Job Centre employees, though I would argue against the claim that Loach paints them all as irredeemable. The film understands that these people are products of a flawed system too — though Dan and Katie are the martyrs, everyone of a certain tax bracket becomes a victim.
If the film sounds dismal, it is because the subject matter needs it to be; its feel-bad nature carries with it the hope that it will enrage and devastate. Yet, I, Daniel Blake punctuates its bleak snapshot with moments of compassion that still align with the film’s commitment to realism. There is the gruff store manager who declines to charge a character who is caught shoplifting and the effortlessly warm women who staff the food bank. There is the young man who stops to help Dan fill out a form on the computer and the reconciliation after two characters appear to part ways forever. There is redemption, almost.
I, Daniel Blake, a film of simple, devastating indignities and simple, devastating recognitions of humanity, ends with a jarring cut. There is no cathartic tying up of loose ends, no glimmer of optimism before the credits roll, just a decisive cut to black—a grim ending to what is, taken as a whole, a grim film. What survives, the film hopes, is a frustration and an empathy that will facilitate a future in which everyone may live in dignity. To quote a character from the film, “I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights.”