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I, Daniel Blake Review


I, Daniel Blake is anything but subjective, an often-damning account of the absurd systemization and bureaucratic oversight that can characterise social services. While the social issues on display here go far deeper than the film ventures, Ken Loach and his long time collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, powerfully capture the quiet tragedy of those that are faultlessly left behind in a world of mounting bureaucracy and digitalisation.

Set in the North-East of England, I, Daniel Blake is the story of ‘Dan’ (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner. Having recently suffered a heart attack, Dan has been advised not to return to work by his GP. When his doctor’s diagnosis is contested by the state-employed ‘health professional,’ Dan fails to qualify for the out-of-work sickness benefit ‘Employment and Support Allowance.’

Dan must navigate his way through the rules and regulations of social services, where there exists a near Orwellian amount of endless, impenetrable red tape. Some of the bureaucratic non-speak brings to mind the madness of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, yet remains grounded in the utter banality of everyday life. The endless rhetoric and jargon uttered by the social welfare employees is cold and emotionless. For Dan, it is disorientating, infuriating and, over time, damaging.

Captured expertly by Laverty, the language here is full of the superficial “I understands” of customer service. Dan waits through hours of exasperating hold music and rehearsed call-centre rhetoric. When he can take no more, he goes down to the jobcentre, where he is told to fill out a form online. After politely asserting that he can’t use a computer, he is advised that there is a number where someone can help him – when he asks for that, he’s told it can be found online.

The situation, at first, is not without a dark humour. While the gravity of Dan’s illness is immediately apparent – the film opens with his medical assessment – the predicament is often comical. Indeed, Johns yields an immensely likeable, touching, often genuinely funny performance as Dan. His early frustrations – his inadequacy with a computer – are light-hearted at first, full of self-deprecating jest. But as time goes on and the endless red tape begins to have a devastating effect on Dan’s life, the film is very quickly drained of all humour.

Dan finds a friend in Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother-of-two who has had to take up residence in Newcastle in order to escape a homeless person’s hostel in London. Outside the frustration of his own issues, Dan finds a release in helping out Katie, fixing up her flat and taking care of her children from time to time. While Dan is having to deal with the aggravation of social welfare for the first time in his life, Katie exists on the opposite end of the spectrum, where there seems to be no end in sight. Despite bringing some light into Dan’s life, the compounding of each party’s tragic situation leads to an often-overwhelming sense of tragedy. A few genuinely affecting moments of misfortune and hardship are full of a kind of raw emotion that is hard to shake after the film ends.

In traditional social realist fashion, Loach alternates through a repetition of mundane locations – the kitchen table, the sink, the cramped balcony outside Dan’s apartment. Most of the drama takes place in these familiar spots and the camera rarely pulls back to show a bigger picture; it is the quietly personal tragedy of Dan and Katie that is on display here and, accordingly, the camera observes everything from tight corners, cramped hallways, small kitchens - yet never feels intrusive. The emotional weight of I, Daniel Blake gets harder to bear as the narrative progresses. Unfortunately, that weight is let down by a couple of all-too obvious narrative turns that the audience should see coming a mile away. Overall however, this is a quietly powerful, moving film – the sober tragedies of everyday life are rarely this emotionally devastating.

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The Movie Bit: I, Daniel Blake Review
I, Daniel Blake Review
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