By André Crous
Kafka is alive and well in Newcastle, and by extension, most of Western society. The black-and-white opening credits of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or–winning are accompanied by the sound of Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widower and former carpenter, trying to knock common sense into a “healthcare professional” who is assessing his case for state benefits. We never see said “professional”, and occasionally we also learn that an equally nameless “decision maker” will resolve Daniel’s case for better or worse.
Dave Johns stars as the recently-stricken-by-a-heart-attack Blake, whose doctor has stated that he should not be working. After he makes a fuss over the bureaucracy he encounters (he had to complete a 52-page form, which somehow still proved insufficient for the government), he is told that a decision has been made that he is fit to work and has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work in order to be eligible for benefits.
The welfare office is always abuzz with activity, but the place reeks of condescension, with middle-aged, lower-middle-class women barking orders at those slightly less fortunate than themselves, pretending that following the rules will somehow lead to a better life. Nobody is listened, everybody is talked down to, and there is no way for the welfare seekers to hang on to their dignity without the government stiffing them for talking back.
It is a desperate situation, and yet Dan has seen worse in his lifetime. His wife died not long ago, and his memories of her, in particular the song she liked, Ronald Binge’s “Shipping By”, which always precedes the BBC’s shipping forecast, appears to keep his spirits up. His pleasant demeanour inspires those around him, including his neighbour, China (the ever-smiling Kema Sikazwe), a resourceful young man who is importing trainers from – you guessed it! – China.
But it is his chance meeting with Katie Morgan (a mesmerisingly intense Hayley Squires), a woman in her mid-20s raising two children from two different fathers on her own, that carries the narrative. After defending her against the callousness of the employees at the welfare office, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her, her daughter, Daisy, and her son, Dylan, and helps them settle into their new but dilapidated home, where his skills as a carpenter and an all-round man of the house come in handy.
The scenes with Katie, who has not found work yet and is unlikely to receive anything from the government because she made a scene, according to the office manager, sustain the narrative and show us how these two characters lean on each other, finding strength and companionship despite their lonely fight against the state Goliath.
The film contains a few powerful scenes, but its power comes from the quiet bubbling desperation that we see in Katie’s life and that we fear might snatch the life from what remains of Daniel’s existence. There is nothing worse than seeing people do their best to care for themselves and for those close to them but having to take desperate measures when push comes to shove. In Katie’s case, she starts skipping meals so that her children have enough to eat, and when she is caught shoplifting, a security guard tells her her looks could help her bring in the money she needs.
As the title indicates, however, the film’s primary concern is identity, and in particular, the need to stand up against anyone – even the State – looking to tear us down. Daniel Blake is recovering from a heart attack, but even a healthy man or woman would blanch at the sight of the bureaucracy and emotional manipulation in which this government agency specialises. For example, Daniel knows nothing about computers and has never used a mouse, but because all the forms he needs are online, and the welfare office refuses to print him a paper copy, he goes hither and thither to complete the process. The final nail in the coffin is when we realise one woman at the office, Ann, wants to help him but is either told to follow the rules or advises him to do things according to the guidelines lest he find himself out on the street, something she has witnessed in the past.
This is a damning indictment of the heartlessness of the Conservative UK government in particular, but more generally of Western society as a whole, which is concerned about its unemployment rates but cares little for the unemployed, not the unemployable.
There will be few dry eyes in the house at the close of the film, and hopefully many a viewer’s heart will beat with rage at the injustice that good people suffer at the hands of those who follow often pointless rules to a fault and relish their power over the powerless.
Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.
Director(s) Ken Loach
Screenwriter(s) Paul Laverty
Directors of Photography Robbie Ryan
Running Time 100 minutes
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩