By Daniele Foti-Cuzzola
In what has been described by Variety magazine as “a work of scalding and moving relevance,” Ken Loach’s beautifully crafted I, Daniel Blake tells a bitter-sweet story of human resilience in drastic circumstances.
The film is centred around the unlikely friendship between a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires) and a middle-aged carpenter, Daniel (Dave Johns), who have both been let down by the British state welfare system.
Daniel, who recently suffered a heart attack and is deemed unfit for work, is caught in an ongoing limbo. He is physically unable to work, but must apply for jobs to receive benefit payments. Outraged by the hypocrisy, he attempts to contact the welfare system while supporting his new friend, Katie, who has moved from London to Newcastle because of a lack of social housing in the capital.
Their unlikely friendship is the basis of the story and thanks to the two leads’ remarkable performances, the film soars. Johns is terrific as the titular character. He is lost and perplexed in a society that has moved on and left him behind. He is voiceless in a society where communication is faceless, as he is constantly required to fill out online forms and emails – a not-so-easy task for someone who has seldom touched a computer. Despite the dark subject matter, Johns portrays his character, Daniel, with a larrikin charisma that makes him endearing. In one scene, as he grows frustrated with a computer, Johns is able to bring together heartbreak and amusement so skilfully that it is almost impossible to not understand his plight. On paper, Daniel could sound a little too good to be true, but Johns layers the character with a roughness and quirk that makes him relatable. He is an underdog that you root for.
Squires steals the show in several heartbreaking scenes, notably one in which she is so overcome with hunger that she stuffs her mouth with tinned beans and is immediately repulsed by her behaviour. Her relationship with Johns’ Daniel is unique and they work brilliantly together. In one scene, Daniel attempts to stop Katie from pursuing a questionable occupation, promising her that there are other solutions to her problems. His approach never comes across as condescending or patriarchal, but as a selfless act of compassion. Her response to his solidarity makes for gripping viewing as they both grapple against a system that tries to suffocate them wherever they turn.
Paul Laverty’s excruciatingly descriptive screenplay showcases everything that is wrong with the British welfare system. While scenes of mundane tasks such as Daniel’s attempts to write emails become repetitive, they are extremely effective as viewers gradually relate to Daniel’s frustrations and gain an insight into how ludicrous the system is.
I, Daniel Blake is a powerful reminder of the social issues present in first world countries. Loach came out of retirement to create the film and provide a voice for those who are voiceless. Despite its comical moments, the film is confronting and contains coarse language, but Loach has crafted an emotionally charged film that will leave you reeling and fire you up to take a stand for those who cannot. And that is the power of a brilliant film, which is what I, Daniel Blake is.