Freelancer and aspiring journalist from Adelaide. Visual Arts graduate & current journalism student. Fashion, lifestyle, entertainment, art & food. I also write for The Adelaidian // theadelaidian.net/author/georgina-tselekidis
Published November 21st 2016
'When you lose your self-respect, you're done for'
Films have the ability to take us somewhere else, away from our everyday lives and personal struggles. However, director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty bring us something different, a reminder of our current reality, particularly those who are under the welfare system. I, Daniel Blake is unlike any drama film I have seen, therefore it's like a breath of fresh air, but a confronting account of what life is really like in the UK for a majority of citizens. Similarly, it hits home for many of us, despite location, who feel the pressures of the world closing in on us.
The film tells the story of a 59 year old man named Daniel Blake, a joiner living in the North-East of England who suffers a major heart attack and is told he is not fit for work. He is put on Employment and Support Allowance, however, his points tally is below the threshold and is deemed as fit for work. With this, we see the journey of a middle-aged man who begins to crumble under the system's unfair process. In the end, Daniel's only option is to claim Jobseekers Allowance for people who are ready to return to the workforce. With this, he must spend 35 hours per week looking for jobs that don't exist via the internet and in person. Of course being a middle-aged man, he is incapable of using the internet, so he must learn how to adapt to the technological demands of a contemporary society. In the meantime, he intends to appeal against the decision on his fitness for work.
As Daniel waits in line at the Job Centre for his name to be called, he meets single mother Katie and her two children, Dylan and Daisy. Recently homeless living in a hostel in London, they move to Newcastle in hopes of a new life, but being new to the city, Katie gets lost and misses her appointment. She is 'sanctioned' and her benefits are stopped, ultimately restricting her ability to feed her family and connect electricity in their apartment. Both Daniel and Katie build a strong relationship as they both try to deal with the poverty that they face together, growing an unbreakable bond that in the end means more than money.
The film is raw and real, as it begins slow with Daniel in the hospital, giving some context to his life as a widow. The filming is not heightened, stylised or sugarcoated in anyway, as the setting in Newcastle is bleak to capture this feeling of isolation that the protagonists feel. As we're introduced to Daniel, a fondness is immediately evoked; his character resembles an everyday man or person, perhaps a grandfather, dad, neighbour, customer at work or ourselves. He is someone who we can all connect with, which is why the film creates such a heavy impact. The films' main focus is the relationship between Daniel and Katie, which establishes a sharp and powerful emotional kick. We see how people slowly lose themselves when they are subjected to acute austerity, slipping into despair as they slide into poverty and possible homelessness. However, although these two characters do not have a lot of money, what they do have is love. Daniel begins to help Katie in his spare time, fixing house damages or babysitting Katie's two children. Like a father-daughter bond, we are reminded that the relationships we make along the way matter most. In a society that is currently at war with one another, whether it be religion, race, gender or social status, Loach breaks it all down; treat others the way you wish to be treated. Love and kindness means more than any material possession.
A stand out of the film is that it is not specifically focused on any particular person, gender, age or culture. It examines the events of everyday people attempting to survive life's economic struggles, whilst documenting how some sadly end up on the streets. Likewise, we're given reason as to why people turn to the black market to make an income, like Daniel's neighbour who sells shoes for cash, or Katie's heart-wrenching turn to prostitution to provide for her family.
Dave Johns as Daniel Blake is no A-star celebrity like Brad Pitt, but he deserves all the credit one could possibly get. By choosing an actor who isn't as 'well-known', Loach gives us a realistic and humble interpretation of a non-fictional world that has the power to affect anyone, from any class. Although Johns is a stand-up comedian, his stellar performance comes as a wonderful surprise. Tears are unavoidable as Johns poignantly tells the story that some of us may know too well. Loach also veers from this cliche fairy-tale ending that makes up western cinema most of the time. Daniel Blake finally has the chance to appeal against the decision on his fitness for work, but it all ends when he is sent to his early grave by the system; like many of us, all he wanted was to be heard.
Hayley Squires is likewise an unfamiliar actress whose outstanding performance is probably the best I have seen in quite some time. Her role as Katie is painful to watch, particularly at the food bank where she is overwhelmed by hunger, unintentionally starving herself because she can't afford to eat. This scene really brings out Squires' aptitude as an actor, immersing herself into the character that distressingly pulls at the heartstrings. In this moment, all I could think of was those who similarly sacrifice so much for their children. As I watched with immense empathy, I felt sad, angry and overwhelmed by the fact that anyone should be reduced to such humiliation. Loach and Laverty attempt to seize our attention with this dramatic yet lifelike account of what lengths people will go to for those they love. Daniel Blake's act of graffitied political defiance resonates with anyone who is suffering in silence, hoping that things will change. I, Daniel Blake allows the viewer to reflect on all these things, long after exiting the cinema. It will change your perception of yourself, and everything you thought you knew about the world around you.