Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is an unmagical mystery tour through the wilfully-labyrinthine world of benefits.
It’s an unsettling game of snakes and ladders where, even if you actually did fall off a ladder or were bitten by a snake, the DWP “decision-maker” would likely deem you fit for work anyway and have you at a CV writing workshop quicker than you can say Employment and Support Allowance.
The film’s central performances are stunning, lives of quiet desperation writ large. Comedian Dave Johns is the eponymous Dan – played as an intriguing mix of naïve and world-weary – a carpenter whose heart attack has rendered him temporarily unable to work. He is tossed, like a pinball, into the vagaries of a box-ticking system which can seemingly override a consultant’s advice that he is not yet recovered enough to get a job. A chance meeting in a benefits office leads him to meet a young mother Katie (Hayley Squires) with whom he forms a touching, avuncular relationship as they both attempt to navigate the system.
A special mention is merited too (especially given my interest in child acting http://www.jemimalaing.tumblr.com) for the touching performances of youngest members of the cast, Dylan McKiernan and Briana Shann, as Katie’s children, utterly blameless flotsam in the eddies of the welfare state. Dan and Katie’s stories show how easy it is to stray unwittingly from the path, courtesy of a wrong bus or a harsh word to a benefits advisor, with a sanction the penalty and the resulting challenge of surviving with no money.
This modern-day Catch 22 leads to the film’s central and most affecting scene in a food bank – exquisitely rendered by Hayley Squires’ Katie – where I finally gave in to the angry tears which were already brimming. It’s unflinching polemic, doubtless, but it is an important film which begs the question how a prosperous country like ours can tolerate queues at foodbanks. It’s hard to think of anyone better able than Loach – at his Palme d’Or winning-best – to ask it.