“I, Daniel Blake” is a moving look at the quagmire that is the welfare system, breaking through the callousness of glib terms like “welfare queen.” There is no crown or glory in battling an amorphic bureaucracy for something as basic as one’s right to exist and live.
British comedian Dave Johns stars as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle, UK, who is seeking public assistance while recovering from a major heart attack. He must navigate a byzantine system of two hour customer disservice calls, forms, inane questions and resume workshops. Though his many encounters with the public servants (the irony of this term will not escape you after this movie) are nothing short of tragic, Daniel still manages to inject comedy─for example, when asked if he is able to relay simple information in a conversation, he wryly responds to the clerk, “Clearly not, based on the questions you are asking me.” When his benefits are denied, he is told he has to return back to work even though his physician does not allow it. So, he is forced to keep applying to jobs he can’t actually take, while simply awaiting his right to appeal. The administration keeps promising him a call from an omnipotent “decision-maker”─again, the nomenclature is quite apt.
Subjected to humiliation, including having to sell all of his furniture, so he would have something to eat, and walking around in his house with a blanket wrapped around him because it is so cold, Daniel somehow still manages to hold on to his decency. He starts helping Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two kids who are in similar dire straits. Katie is in a state of ceaseless worry, crying in hiding when her kids go to sleep at night. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, she tears open a can of beans and scoops them into her mouth with her hands at the government food pantry because she has been starving herself to give to her kids. She then keeps apologizing, as though the degradation she has been subjected to is somehow her fault.
Director Ken Loach keeps “I, Daniel Blake” light on the polemics, instead allowing the powerful performances of Johns and Squires to shine. The subject matter is heavy, but a droll sense of humor prevents the film from being onerous and bleak. When Dan draws graffiti on the welfare administration building, writing, “I, Daniel Blake, would like an appeal date before I starve and change the shite music on the phones,” he is commenting on the very absurdity of a system that refuses to recognize his humanity. The graffiti is his selfhood writ large. His empty flat, with just a phone sitting on the floor, awaiting a decision-maker Godot who never comes, is a poignant take on the precarity that is the daily life of so many.