Wednesday, 16 November 2016
FILM REVIEW: I, DANIEL BLAKE
The title for Ken Loach's latest social drama, penned by regular collaborator Paul Laverty and winner of this year's Palme D'or, reads like the opening line to someone's last will and testament.
But the death being examined by Loach isn't that of the titular Daniel, a widower recovering from a heart attack and caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to government assistance. It is the death of compassion in a country where conservative bureaucracy rules and duty of care has been abandoned; its citizens are no longer seen as people but clients, mere numbers.
Ruled unfit to work by his doctor, Daniel (a terrific 'every man' performance by Dave Johns) must apply for unemployment benefits. But the welfare department's own health care professionals have deemed him fit to look for work (You can raise your arms abover your head? You're good to go!), which he must do in order to receive financial aid.
It's during the first of many frustrating visits to the employment office where he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), who, with her two young children, has been relocated to Newcastle from London; social services unable to find her accommodation in that city and prepared to move her north in spite of existing family connections in one place and no job prospects in the other. She, too, is just a number.
Daniel and Katie form an instant friendship: the elder man finding purpose in repairing her rundown apartment and helping out with the kids; she with not just a babysitter but a father figure who encourages her job search efforts and desire to continue her studies.
But if the system is frustrating for Daniel, its effects on Katie are worse. Unable to afford enough food she often goes without meals, leading to a heartbreaking scene in a food bank. The situation gets even worse for Katie, her suffering not unlike that of a heroine in a 1940s Hollywood melodrama.
But what is melodrama but heightened reality? Loach and Laverty are very much focused on the reality of modern Britain, and a bureaucracy where every decision seems to be ruled upon by 'The Decisionmaker'; an anonymous entity like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
Not that I, Daniel Blake is all doom and gloom; the film celebrates the little guy and grassroots community support. But it has no sympathy for big government, nor should it. It's an angry film, and Australian audiences will not be able to comfort themselves with the thought that 'at least it's not like that here'. Too late, Australia, we're already there.