Daniel (Dave Johns) has worked all his life – until he had a heart attack. Now his doctors haven’t cleared him to work yet, but after completing a standard questionnaire at the employment agency, they disagree. Now Daniel is caught in a conundrum: he can’t claim support on the basis on health issues because he is deemed healthy enough to work, but neither can he claim unemployment benefits because he can’t actually look for work. Caught in the bureaucracy he finds Katie (Hayles Squires), a single mother of two who just had to move to Newcastle and away from her entire support network or risk losing the government housing and support she so desperately needs. Daniel and Katie start facing this inhumane conditions together.
I, Daniel Blake is political cinema at its finest. It’s emotional, realistic and a damning statement about what’s left of the welfare system in the UK. If you don’t go out of the film ready to tear down neoliberal austerity politics, I really don’t know what’s wrong with you.
If there’s one thing that I have to critique about I, Daniel Blake, it’s that Katie and especially Daniel are just so bloody good people. Their need for and right to support should not hinge on their personality and their niceness, but on the fact that they’re human beings who need help. Even shitty people deserve not to starve, you don’t need to be, basically, a saint to deserve welfare.
The flipside being, of course, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re the sweetest human being you could possibly imagine who really did nothing to be in the situation he is in, other than have a heart attack. And since people tend to see themselves as good persons, this shows that with a system set up to pay as little welfare as possible, people will struggle and even die because of it – and it can happen to anyone, you don’t even need to be a work-shy low-life bent on living off the state (or whatever clichés are usually employed to justify welfare cuts). You can do everything right and still get screwed.
And Loach hammers the severity of Daniel’s and Katie’s situations home over and over again, thanks also to the great and naturalistic performances by the entire cast. I don’t know how often I cried during the film (though probably never more so than when Daniel takes Katie to the foodbank, I still tear up just thinking of that scene). Even the parts that were obviously coming packed such an emotional punch that their obviousness shall be easily forgiven.
I know that in Austria, we’re still better off, welfare-wise, than in the UK right now, but the way things are going, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where we’re headed. And I hope that films like this one will make people realize the devastating consequences this would have.