I’ll start out by saying this – I hated I, Daniel Blake. That isn’t to say that it is a bad movie. It is actually a brilliant movie and one of the best of the year, and I adored it. But I hated it because it isn’t fair that a film this sad exists. Just when I thought Manchester by the Sea had a monopoly on cinematic despair this year, I, Daniel Blake comes along and caused me to weep like a little child, and say what you want, if that doesn’t show a film is brilliantly made, when it came make a grown man cry his eyes out, then you know it is something special and a film that deserves special attention.
I, Daniel Blake is about the titular character, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a carpenter in Newcastle who suffers a heart attack and is placed in an awkward position – his doctor says he is unfit to return to work, whereas the government sees him as perfectly healthy – so he is unemployed and ineligible to receive benefits, which causes him to have to seek other avenues of gaining an income. He befriends Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children who moved, penniless, from London, in search of a better life. Daniel and Katie have a solid friendship as he becomes a father-figure to the naive but good-intentioned Katie and a welcome presence in the lives of their children. Katie herself has been sanctioned from receiving benefits, and thus she understands Daniel’s plight, and both of them try their ultimate best to make the best lives for themselves, but they are faced with the cruelty of the British government system that just doesn’t see them as human beings, but rather numbers in a file.
The director of I, Daniel Blake is Ken Loach, who has always been someone with a distinctively powerful tendency to give voices to marginalized and undervalued members of society in his films. I, Daniel Blake is his response to what he considers a corrupt system that robs people of their livelihoods and their dignity, and can turn even the most optimistic individual into a shell of their former selves, and cause them to forego any remaining honour they had. Now I am sure that this, as a fictional film, does take some liberties, and while I do hope that the benefits system in the United Kingdom is not as corrupt as it is here, I wouldn’t be surprised. Franz Kafka tried to show us the horrors and confusion in bureaucracy – but Loach shows us the utter misery within, how an institution, composed of people comfortable in their lives, does not care about the very people they claim to represent and serve.
Unfortunately, as a realist film, I, Daniel Blake doesn’t end in a positive way with a resolution. It ends in a way that will make you incredibly angry and utterly sad – and I believe this is what Loach set out to do, to craft a film that would incite fury in the viewers, especially those who aren’t part of the groups that are depicted here, who can use their privilege to give voice to the voiceless. I, Daniel Blake isn’t only a film – it is a fiery political statement, and one of those rare films that actually might change the world, or at least the life of one individual. I think that if even one disadvantaged person is able to benefit from this film in some way, it achieved its purpose.
Above, I mentioned how I, Daniel Blake is a piece of realism – and it is painfully accurate in how it depicts reality. First of all, it shows real human suffering – this is something that I know really does happen – individuals not knowing where their next paycheck is going to come from, and how they are going to pay for electricity or food or clothing. It is utterly shocking how I, Daniel Blake is a reflection of the plight and suffering of so many people around the world, and it is often painful how sad this film makes you, not because of anything other than you realize that this exact thing does happen, and it makes you appreciate everything you have, and also makes you want to give everything you own to those who have nothing. This film may have been made as art, and with the intention of making money as well, but it is also a deeply humanitarian film, as it cares about people who are suffering and don’t want to suffer any longer, but are forced to.
Not only is I, Daniel Blake realist in the way that it tells a very human story, it also manages to play like real life – the way it is written isn’t cliched at all, and is a reflection of real life in many ways. The small-talk, cut-off sentences, reactions and actions are all utterly truthful in how they show Loach’s keen eye for writing character that come off as being realistic and honest. The little moments throughout this film make it absolutely delightful and utterly heartbreaking, and this brand of realism is both brilliant and heartbreaking, because it isn’t just a reflection on life – it purports to actually be representative of what life really is.
Now Dave Johns – oh boy. I had seem him a few times on British quiz shows and comedy performances, but I never really took much notice of him. Johns is apparently a comedian, and not having much knowledge of his comedic work, it helped me see him as a dramatic actor here, and he convinced me that he truly is the titular character with his unbelievably powerful performance. He isn’t completely dour – he does show a sense of humour, but that isn’t a representation of Dave Johns, but rather of his character, Daniel Blake, who is a man who always tries his best and attempts to look on the bright side of life when things have got him down. However, his descent from hopeful and optimistic man to a shadow of his former self broke my heart several times – and this film’s tragic ending just destroyed me. Johns gives probably the best male performance of the year, alongside the similarly sad performance Casey Affleck gave in the equally sad Manchester by the Sea. Johns is just perfect in this role, and I think this is a performance that many will look to in the future to display the utter brilliance that a good script and a dedicated actor can do.
Johns is joined in this film by an actress who I was previously unfamiliar with, but now that I have seen her work here in I, Daniel Blake, I have to say that I am very impressed with Hayley Squires. The character of Katie is not traditionally likable, but she manages to be utterly extraordinary in the role as the single mother doing her very best. Squires brings such complexity to the role, and there is one moment near the middle of the film where I completely lost it and began to openly weep – for those who have seen the film, you’ll know which scene I am talking about. The evolution of Katie throughout the film, from being a figure of virtue to someone who loses all innocence in an effort to put food on the table for her children, is utterly incredible. Squires gives one of the absolute best performances of the year, and on an emotional level, she completely destroyed me.
One aspect of I, Daniel Blake that I loved was how we were able to really care about these characters. It is one thing for us to like a character and connect with them – but to truly adore a character and care about them, that takes a special kind of script, and I, Daniel Blake has just that. It presents these characters as real humans, with honest emotion and realistic development. They are far from the lazy figures of slacking off and avoiding work, but rather are people trying their very best. The fact that we love these characters is only made worse by the film’s utter sadness and despair.
I doubt you’ll see a sadder film than I, Daniel Blake. It is a powerhouse of emotion, and one that features utterly incredible performances and a truly magnificent script. Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are beyond incredible, and Ken Loach proves that he is still the brilliantly passionate mind that he was when he started making these realist films about defiance. I, Daniel Blake is the best kind of film – one that is simple in execution, but brilliant in resonance. I just know I loved it more than I’ve loved a lot of films, and it is definitely one of the very best.
This is an honest plea: please watch I, Daniel Blake. It is a film that is filled with importance, and we can help change hearts and minds and the lives of those who don’t have anything, simply by being aware of the plight of those who need help. It goes without saying that a film like I, Daniel Blake will change the life of someone – and after being so moved by it, I am going to make sure I am the first person to act on my advice and go out and help those who truly need it. It is our duty as human beings to help one another, and that is the central meaning of the incredible film that is I, Daniel Blake.