I’ve never really reviewed a film before, maybe some critical post-credit comments in a bar or coffee shop after, but certainly never in prose and published somewhere on the distant plane of the internet. This is probably because I don’t particularly like films all that much; TV is where it’s all at, let’s be honest. Films seem too long to me, despite the fact that they’re much shorter than my average Netflix watching session. I usually just get dragged along to see lots of them (my partner gets very excited at the prospect of a midnight showing). So, when, at the weekend, it was me who suggested we go see a film it was odd to the both of us.
At my local Odeon in Colchester ‘I, Daniel Blake’ only had the one showing at the weekend – 6.15pm on Sunday in one of the Cinema’s smallest screens. Despite this, the room was packed and, apart form a few notable exceptions, I was the youngest person there. The film focusses on the struggles of two people receiving state benefits, a young mother of two and older carpenter who is disabled after suffering a massive heart attack.
I knew the film wasn’t going to leave me feeling warm and fuzzy inside – I’d nearly teared up just watching the trailer – but I wasn’t prepared for the harrowing picture Ken Loach had created for all of us to see. The optimism of Hayley Squires’ character Katie was continually beaten down by the distressing reality of her life. Katie’s sense of hope as she opened the door to her new flat, “I will make this place home if it’s the last thing I do” set me up to be impressed and proud of the plight of a poor young woman to make the best out of a terrible situation. But no amount of ‘pluck’, ‘grit’, ‘hard-work’ or ‘tenacity’ can get you out of the kind of poverty where you have to choose between having electric or buying your kids school clothes, however much some might try and convince you otherwise.
This ‘home’ that Katie so desperately sought after becomes one of the main backdrops for the film. It is the setting for the compassion and friendship that Daniel shows Katie and she gives in return. As Daniel fixes loos, door handles and teaches the kids how to keep their bedrooms a bit warmer Katie cooks dinner and talks of returning to her course with the Open University. Despite the warmth and strength of their friendship for each other, the flat remains cold and broken. Katie’s optimism about creating a home, her determination to make one, is again overshadowed by her reality. As she tries to scrub the dirty and damp bathroom clean a tile breaks of the wall, revealing more dirt and damp that no amount of scrubbing or optimism could scrape away.
The tone of the piece isn’t wholly dark and desperate though. The opening scene is successfully comedic as it points fun at the ‘healthcare professionals’ of ATOS who are tasked with determining how deserving our poor and sick really are. Dave Johns expertly delivers moments of comic relief with his ineptitude with computers. A moment of dissent from Dan gives the film its longest moment of optimism. Spray painting the wall of the job centre to request two things; firstly, a long overdue date for his appeal and secondly, a demand for the DWP to change their hold music which you see Dan spend hours listening to (and paying for). A seemingly drunk and homeless man congratulates Dan whilst muttering about “Ian Duncan whatshisface”. This scene provides a moment of respite – a half antidote – which is much needed after Katie’s earlier breakdown at a food bank. As the mother collects food – rice and vegetables – she asks for sanitary products but they have none. As Katie continues walking round, filling a white carrier bag with food, she becomes to be increasingly upset and unwell before finally, and desperately, opening a tin of food and pouring it into her mouth.
If you can, like many others, dismiss this film as purely fiction and a great exaggeration of the truth then I urge you to read about the deaths, sanctions and starvation that prove I, Daniel Blake is accurate. Whilst the characters may be fictional the lives they depict certainly are not. This is not a film about poverty, but an expose of a system that creates and perpetuates violence against individuals.