We have all encountered them. The robotic jobsworths performing tasks outsourced to contractors by the government; people who can only communicate via a script. They are not paid to empathise, just to achieve targets. While watching the film’s titles we hear 59-year-old widower Daniel Blake undergoing a telephone assessment to determine if he is eligible to receive Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to help him survive financially following a major heart attack leaving him unfit to work.
Ken Loach, the veteran octogenarian film maker won a Palme d’Or award at Cannes for this his latest film which follows in the same vein as ‘Cathy Come Home’, his 1966 TV drama about homelessness which sparked outrage and activism 50 years ago.
Set in Newcastle it paints a gloomy picture of modern Britain where good, honest people are forced to fight through bureaucracy and red tape to access welfare using a system that is broken and de-humanises people, stripping them of any remaining shreds of dignity.
Daniel worked as a joiner for 40 years and the ‘decision makers’ deem he is fit to work despite his heart specialist saying he is not. So, he embarks on a battle with call centres and computers, after being told to appeal online. When told by a librarian to ‘run the mouse up the screen’, he literally lifts the mouse up and runs it across the screen.
The best thing about this film is the actors, they seem so real you feel they have been plucked off the street and they are just being themselves rather than playing a part. Daniel is played by Dave Johns a Geordie stand-up comedian who brings just the right blend of humour and sensitivity to the role.
At the Job Centre Daniel forms an unlikely friendship with Katie, a single mother with two kids from different fathers who has had to relocate from London, played brilliantly by newcomer Hayley Squires.
They lean on each other for support and the only place they seem to get treated with empathy is at the food bank, depicted in a scene filmed so movingly it triggered a rush of intense weeping. However, this is the only time I was punched hard in the gut by this film.
The reason it feels so real is that Loach and the film’s screenwriter, Paul Laverty, travelled the country, meeting people, listening to stories and visiting food banks. The extras in the heart-breaking scene in the food bank were genuine clients, paid for their time in food vouchers.
If it wasn’t directed by Loach it would seem more at home as a TV drama, highlighting an important social issue and making subtle digs at the Tory government, but at times feeling a bit contrived. Daniel resides in a soul-less council block and his next-door neighbour is an affable young black man called China, who irritates Daniel by forgetting to take out his rubbish. However, when Daniel chastises him China takes it on the chin, and they form a bond, rather than telling him to F-off.
The message is that we are all human and fighting a system that has demoralised and dehumanised people into clients, customers and statistics with bureaucratic ‘decision makers’ sealing our fate. Everyone is just trying to do their best to keep a roof over their heads and feed their kids in broken Britain in impossible circumstances. Loach wants us to feel angry, I just felt hopeless. It is moving and thought provoking and will make people want to stand up and assert their right to be heard and may provoke a spate of spray-painting on job centre walls. It will also make women donate sanitary towels to food banks.