The Decision Maker
by Julien Allen
I, Daniel Blake
Dir. Ken Loach, UK, IFC Films/Sundance Selects
Nestled within this year’s awards controversy at the Cannes Film Festival (an event whose annual recurrence is not sufficiently frequent for its resident detractors to remember that the prize jury is not made up of film critics) was a grudging recognition that Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake—his second after 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley—was not the very worst decision the jury had made in 2016. It certainly paled in comparison to “nothing for Toni Erdmann,” and as such merited only a slightly mean-spirited bout of shoulder-shrugging. So Loach’s incongruously amorous relationship with Cannes continues, defying critical vogue (the Cahiers du cinéma compared Raining Stones to Pialat in 1993, but have long since alighted from that train, boarding instead the engine powered by the youthful flames of Xavier Dolan), and broadly outstaying its critical welcome. At 80 years of age, Loach is all too happy to continue bringing his Marxist social dramas to the Armani-flecked Boulevard de la Croisette, as long as they keep inviting him. Doubters can fall back on the conclusion that Cannes’ magnanimity toward his output is simply a matter of assuaging a few 1% consciences.
But once we leave that particular madness behind, what are we left with, exactly? Written by Paul Laverty, it’s another story, following Loach and Laverty’s 1998 drama My Name Is Joe, of a single man trapped in a declining spiral, betrayed by the very organs of state designed and put in place to protect him (as Loach protagonists have always been, since Kes took on the education system and Cathy Come Home the UK’s social housing provision). Daniel Blake is a fifty-something carpenter, widowed, with a heart condition who is told by his doctors he cannot work. He is ostensibly entitled to disability benefit but fails a means test (conducted in audio only, over the black-screen opening titles) on account, we understand, of his ability to freely use his arms and legs. His only recourse is to unemployment benefits, which requires him to provide evidence that he is spending thirty hours a week seeking work—work of which there is little, and which he has to turn down once it is offered to him anyway.
Anyone reading the above passage and—perfectly understandably—screaming “dramatic contrivance!” should disabuse themselves immediately. This precise Catch-22 phenomenon is happening, everywhere in Britain, as you read this. Government policy to “reform” the welfare system was introduced in 2010 in order to slash public spending in the wake of the recession caused by the sub-prime mortgage bubble and subsequent credit crunch of 2007. The policy involved spending public money on hyper-efficient (French and American) private corporations who can target the removal of a thick swathe of the population from the welfare system and thereby cut what is already a relatively minimal cost from the public purse. The easiest wins are at the bottom, with the most vulnerable being the disabled or sick. Social services staff are rewarded for denying welfare and disciplined for assisting. One sequence in I, Daniel Blake shows a conscience-stricken employee nervously helping Daniel with his online application, which he makes in the welfare office itself, as he doesn’t own a computer (and hand-written forms are no longer accepted). “It’s frozen?” Daniel asks, confronted with error messages on screen, “Well, can’t you defrost it?” The kindly employee is interrupted and reprimanded behind closed doors by her younger line manager.
The architect of this real-life-no-kidding policy, the Conservative minister Ian Duncan-Smith (name-checked in the film as a “fucking baldy bastard” by a typically Loachian street agitator) ended up giving a tearful interview to the BBC about his encounter with someone who had been refused benefits, then eventually resigned from the government in 2016 at the sheer inhumanity of it all, protesting that he had only been following orders and trying to hit his own targets handed down by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. All of this was presumably too much for Ken Loach, officially retired from filmmaking but unable to let a story like this slide.
In I, Daniel Blake, Loach and Laverty ensure that the primary focus of the film’s emotional narrative is not on the iniquities of the welfare system, because it really doesn’t need to be. Having angrily established the foundation stone of injustice, the film stays on Daniel’s coping strategies and in particular on his avuncular friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother on unemployment benefits, whose spiky attitude in the social security office earns her a “sanction”: her benefits are stopped, ostensibly because she was late to her appointment, having just moved into the area from London and not knowing her way around on public transport. I, Daniel Blake is a film not about injustice (which we can all read about), but about hardship (which we don’t) and how its victims cope with it. We’re never allowed to forget the inhumane backdrop, via the mind-numbing repetition of ghastly, subliterate welfare terminology: “sanction” (no money for you); “official direction” (do this, or no money for you), and above all, the almost comically Orwellian: “the decision-maker” (the person who is officially tasked to ensure there is no money for you). As with Sweet Sixteen, My Name Is Joe, and in particular Raining Stones, what best fuels the narrative emerges from the scraps of humor and hope—and especially the mutual compassion—exhibited by its desperate characters.
The most moving and powerful moments in I, Daniel Blake occur when we simply witness somebody being nice to somebody else. Daniel, imbued with the sort of human decency we all believe we have within us, gives of his time and skill to help improve the lives of Katie and her two children, who are teetering on the brink of starvation. In some of the worst affected public schools in the UK (including Newcastle, where the film is set) as many as one in five children comes to school hungry. Katie, the victim by mid-film of an absolute cocktail of sanctions from the welfare office, won’t let that happen and instead starves herself. The explosion of generosity she encounters in the local food bank (of which there are 445 in the UK, feeding over one million people last year, according to the charity administering them) leads to a lacerating scene that one might categorize as I, Daniel Blake’s very own Odessa Steps sequence and which consecrates Squires’s marvelous, naturalistic performance as the touchstone of the film. The last words of I, Daniel Blake are written by Daniel’s character, but come from her mouth.
After numerous previous forays, including John Bishop in Route Irish, Crissy Rock in Ladybird Ladybird, Ricky Tomlinson in Riff-Raff and, in a strange reversal, George Lopez as the unspeakable antagonist in the Los Angeles–set Bread and Roses, Loach has once again tapped into the world of working-class stand-up comedy in his casting of Newcastle comedian Dave Johns as Daniel Blake. Johns is solid and authentic, but occasionally called upon to do too much. Loach’s own first steps in show business were as a comic actor, having performed for one year alongside Dudley Moore and others as part of the famous Oxford Revue, while reading Law at St Peter’s College, Oxford. Graduating early from acting to staging theatre at London’s Royal Court, then very rapidly to television in the early 1960s, Loach turned his focus toward the “urgently contemporary and socially relevant,” but he has always valued comic timing and above all an ingrained use of humor as a natural defense mechanism, in his protagonists.
Even if we accept that there has been a notable decline in the traction Loach’s films are capable of exerting on modern audiences since 2002’s Sweet Sixteen, what cannot be usefully denied is his storytelling control and balance. Far from offering mere miserablism, for those who have the patience to look closely Loach’s cinema is as much about why people are worth fighting for as about what they need to fight against. Daniel doesn’t fit into 2016 because he lives in a country that, in the words of the late Tony Benn (one of the leading proponents of democratic socialism in UK politics), “has a contempt for skill.” Daniel builds, repairs, powers, heats, improves and even gilds things—all of which we see him do in the film. (A craftsman, he makes a wooden mobile for Katie’s daughter; as she examines and caresses the lovingly carved wooden fishes, he lets slip very quietly: “They’ve got a subtle shine on them.”)
For a film with a number of assured, even virtuosic passages, there regrettably remain quite a few bum notes (the ostensible narrative climax, wherein Daniel stages a street protest, is horribly underwhelming; a bizarre side-story involving Daniel’s neighbor importing trainers from China is undeveloped and borderline racist). And the whole project remains tonally in keeping with Loach’s twilight period, featuring solid but trivial films like The Angel’s Share and Looking for Eric. Loach’s deliberate cinematic artlessness (he has always been determined not to cloud the purpose of his films by either literally or figuratively overcranking the camera) cannot trump his limpid storytelling skill, but the sense of mellowness here, of holding back, will disappoint those who want nineties Loach fire and brimstone from this particular story.
If those of us who customarily defend Loach are honest with ourselves, those of his films which certify his value as a British filmmaker on the world stage since 1969’s Kes tend to be those which either pack a severe emotional punch despite a complex, not to say unsympathetic protagonist (My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen); shed new light on a subject of which too little is known (Land and Freedom); or inject foreign agents into his traditional stripped-down crypto-realist formula (Carla’s Song, Bread and Roses). I, Daniel Blake neither achieves nor attempts any of these things. Instead there is a raw urgency to the film, not to say a disposability, which disavows an egotistical tilt at any kind of long-term artistic legacy. The film is designed—to borrow a phrase from American labor union lore—to educate, and partly to agitate. One even feels that if everyone were to see I, Daniel Blake once, but never again, Loach would be entirely content.
Postscript: On the morning of October 1, 2016, the date of I, Daniel Blake’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, the British Work & Pensions Secretary announced that tens of thousands of long term sickness claimants would be able to claim benefits without recourse to repeated medical assessments. This constitutes the first signs of a potential thawing in welfare policy from the new Conservative government.