Welfare at its worst, realism at its finest – I, Daniel Blake review

The fact that poverty and life on the edge of starvation are not only phenomena of third world countries may not be obvious to the average middle class European. Ken Loach’s most recent feature film is about Daniel Blake, a carpenter in Newcastle, who seeks benefit payment after suffering from a heart attack that leaves him unable to work. This payment was denied after a dubious assessment determined that he is able to work. He faces sudden poverty, a possible eviction and starvation.

79-year old British director Ken Loach can look back on more than fifty years of successful film-making. His social drama “I, Daniel Blake” won this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes, the second he received after the historical IRA drama “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” from 2006. Roach is known to be an uncomfortable critic of the British austerity system and as an advocate of working-class interests. With “I, Daniel Blake” he moves on familiar terrain: exploitation, the indignity of unemployment, the struggle and resilience of working-class people.

Loach’s takes a tasteful approach to the scenes displaying moments of despair, most of which unravel slowly but intensely. The unusually long takes make these unfiltered scenes seem brutally realistic and leave the viewer feeling like a bystander. One of the most stirring scenes in the movie is the collapse of Katie Morgan, the film’s female lead portrayed by Hayley Squires.

Daniel meets her when her first visit to the Jobcentre goes off the rails and he tries to help her out. This humanly behaviour results in both of them getting kicked out of the centre. However, they become friends and support each other wherever they can, which seems to temporarily restore the dignity of these two tragic figures for just a little bit. Especially Katie’s two children appreciate the support and company of this friendly elderly man that serves as a bit of a substitute father for them, both raised just by their mother but coming from different fathers.

Katie’s attempt to pull the weight of the three of them and making her children not feel left out of society slowly grinds her down and leads to a symptomatic collapse at the food bank. While assembling the food bag, she is overcome by her hunger. In order to provide food for her kids, she herself did not eat for four days to save money. Unable to contain herself, she tears open a can of beans and starts eating it.

This key scene does not only fully embrace the despair and the shame that people people dependent on the welfare system suffer from, it also highlights the quality of acting and direction in the film. Actress Hayley Squires did not eat for four days before shooting the scene in order to get a genuine feeling for the stress and the disconnectedness of the mind and the body that hunger brings with it. As the scene builds up, the viewer can already see that something is slightly off about Katie. The takes are unusually long and create a disturbing tension which let’s the audience sense that something unsettling is about to happen. Though sitting comfortably in the cinema chair, one feels like being an eye-witness to a very intimate and weak moment of a stranger.

“I, Daniel Blake” is a multi-layered film about bureaucracy, respect and support that gives alarming insights into the lives of people unfavoured by the system and it convinces with its unsparing directness and subjectivity. Although the cumulative succession of dramatic events almost seems to be a little too much, with key scenes such as Katie’s desperate hunger attack at the food back or Daniel’s argument with her when he finds out that she sells her body, it does not fail to make you feel touched and shocked by the brutal reality that a large number of people is facing daily.

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