Recovering from a heart attack while up scaffolding on a building site and told by his GP that he’s unable to work, casual labourer and skilled joiner Daniel Blake (played by Dave Johns) enters the nine circles of Department of Works and Pension hell as he battles for recognition of his health condition and financial support through the Employment and Support Allowance.
Unfortunately, points mean
prizes benefits, and the widower’s heart attack doesn’t score highly enough to avoid him being deemed fit for work. After hours spent in the first circle (limbo) waiting for health professionals in all centres to explain the next stage of the mandatory and rigid process Dan jumps straight to the fifth circle (wrath) when his efforts to sell himself and find employment are rewarded with a referral for sanction.
All the while, Dan befriends a single parent Katie (Hayley Squires) from London who has been living with hew two primary school aged children in a homeless hostel. Finally offered accommodation in Newcastle upon Tyne, she has uprooted her children from school friends and family support to move north.
Dan’s selfless and angelic intervention makes a positive impact on the young family’s lives, slowing the spiralling descent of mother Katie as she is squeezed into making bad decisions, albeit perhaps the least worst under the desperate circumstances.
There are some moments of hope and kindness in this grey tale. A food bank based in a church hall offers dignity and respect once those queuing around the block enter inside. Ordinary people help the digitally challenged fifty nine year old, forced online at every welfare process twist and turn. Unfortunately the one DWP worker who goes off-script and displays a smidgeon of humanity is swiftly disciplined for nearly stimulating a dangerous precedent.
In the midst of claim forms and benefits, poor alternatives are shown. Entrepreneurial youths create income by exploiting high value goods sourced from overseas factory production lines; with some of the workers complicit in their scheme and also profiting from it. The sex trade offers steady income for those willing to sign on.
I, Daniel Blake offers a bruising critique of the system, but no answers. That’s not the point. It’s a cry for help, a plea for common sense and injection of humanity as the unfeeling social welfare system is laid bare. Someone curses Iain Duncan Whateveryoucallhim after Dan’s brief act of seventh circle violence against a wall is caught. It’s harsh but not cruel.
Letters, phone calls, hold music, inflexible questionnaires and bureaucratic bullies seem to have become the basic tenets of the UK government’s austere policies. Those with the most need and the least proficiency are asked to jump through the highest hoops to access support.
This morning’s breakfast radio bulletins brought the sickening news that the International Development Secretary Priti Patel plans to extend these principles to overseas aid, using it to help deliver trade deals and throw British soft power weight around rather than using the 0.7% tithe on Gross National Income to offer help without selfish strings attached.
While Paul Laverty’s screenplay avoids the convenient coincidences that plague many modern films, there are still moments within the 100 minute film that feel a little clunky. But director Ken Loach’s point is made and made well. It’s grim up t’north for Dan, but to be honest it’s grim for hundreds of thousands of Dans up and down the country, being slowly roasted in the DWP’s latest circles of hell. And with welfare reform in Northern Ireland, we’re not immune from this inhumane madness.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.