By Preston Wilder
Is Hollywood closing down? (Not that we care, we’re just asking.) Here’s a second straight week with just one new release at the multiplex – so instead we turn to I, Daniel Blake, which only semi-counts as a new release. It’s being shown once this week, Monday the 8th at the Limassol Cine Club, but a couple more screenings are planned for Nicosia next week, and besides it’s also topical in another way: we’re currently a few days away from the start of the Cannes Film Festival – and Ken Loach’s socially-conscious drama was the winner of the Golden Palm (i.e. top prize) at last year’s Cannes, Loach’s second Palm after The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006.
Did it deserve to win? The answer is probably ‘no’, yet it’s easy to see why the jury decided to hand it the Palm. This is a humane, lucid drama that must’ve stood out from the pack, unfashionably focused on working-class lives which it views very simply, offering neither transcendence nor sensationalism. It does fall apart in the final act, and it’s also true – a common complaint against Cannes – that, had it been made by some British TV journeyman instead of Loach, it’d never have found a slot in the world’s most prestigious film competition. Yet to criticise the film for not doing more is to miss what it actually does, notably in exposing the sinister – not just ineffective, but actually sinister – workings of government bureaucracy, given a new dimension in the Age of the Internet.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widowed carpenter in late middle age who’s just had a serious heart attack. He needs money to tide him over while he’s recovering, but applying for benefits is fraught with problems. In the first place, even though his doctors insist he’s unable to work, the “health professional” who assesses him (she works for a big US company, part of the new semi-privatised state) finds he doesn’t meet the 15-point threshold on her standardised form, therefore must be deemed fit for work. Dan can appeal, but first he must await a call from the “decision maker” (though he already knows the decision) then a “mandatory reconsideration” which could take weeks – and meanwhile he has to keep looking for work (though he knows he can’t work) in order to at least receive unemployment benefit. Any deviation from the rules and he risks getting “sanctioned”, i.e. delayed even further.
It’s the old bureaucratic nightmare, an irrational decision leading down into a labyrinth of further irrational decisions – but nowadays there’s also an extra layer: the state is “digital by default”, meaning everything must be done online, even though Dan hasn’t used a computer in his life. This isn’t just a question of a few elderly hold-outs in a digital age: Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty understand that the internet offers the Machine – in Britain and increasingly elsewhere – a game-changing new weapon, a way to insulate itself both from criticism (“All information is available online”) and, most essentially, human contact. This isn’t just about benefits (many would say Dan is lucky to be able to apply for benefits in the first place), it’s about the deliberate dehumanisation of public life, led by technology and corporate metrics. Nor is the system merely flawed; as the film implies, it’s designed – hence the ‘sinister’ part – to leave claimants scrambling, in the hope that as many as possible will simply quit.
I watched Daniel Blake on DVD, and it made me so angry I had to pause just to get up and walk around. If that doesn’t count as a recommendation, I don’t know what does – yet the film is also half-baked, in the manner of Woody Allen’s recent films (Loach is Allen’s contemporary; he’ll be 81 next month). It feels like Loach and Co. got an idea for a movie, laid it out well enough for about an hour, then simply ran out of steam when it came time to develop the plot. Hayley Squires plays Katie, a single mum forced into prostitution – but the script, having placed her in that desperate position, doesn’t know what to do with it. Daniel’s late-in-the-day protest (which gives the film its title) also comes and goes without much outcome, while his letter at the end is absurd, sounding more like an author’s Message than the voice of the man we’ve gotten to know over the previous 90 minutes.
Loach blames the Tories for this mess, which may be historically accurate but only makes him seem old and out-of-touch: the truth is that this automated, digitised, impenetrably faceless new world goes beyond party politics, and would be put to Orwellian uses by any government. Fortunately, Loach also emphasises working-class solidarity – Dan keeps being helped by other people, even as the state keeps defeating him – and is too smart to make the actual government employees uniformly nasty (some do indeed abuse their power but others are helpful, or at least apologetic); I, Daniel Blake saves its ire for the system, which is why it connects. It’s not even getting a proper release, but we don’t care. Like Daniel himself, it still counts.
DIRECTED BY Ken Loach
STARRING Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann
UK 2016 100 mins