Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: I, DANIEL BLAKE: Rockin' a Hard Place

Dialogue over a black screen with the credits. An ageing man, Daniel, is struggling to get through a welfare interview about his health and capability. He has a heart condition that keeps him from employment, especially in his trade as a carpenter. The interviewer has to keep hooking him back to the script of the form, warning that a combative attitude will only go badly for him. It does.

But it does not because he is difficult but because the Kafkaesque system of queuing and eligibility and eligibility to queue has left no room to move. He can't get his suspension from benefits appealed until the overloaded system allows it which means that he will have to sign on for the dole but that means that he will be obliged to look for work that he has been declared unfit for. That's all assuming he can make his way through the computer form because all applications must be online. He doesn't know what a mouse is when he gets in front of a public access computer and by the time a helpful fellow beneficiary can get him through the form he has run out of time at the terminal.

Trying again at making it personal (the phone queue torture has led to more absurd frustration) at the welfare office he is again rejected but is stopped when witnessing a woman with two children being ejected before their interview for being late. He stands and cries out for the stranger to be given a chance and it is the first moment of control we have seen him take. It leads to more frustration but also a personal bond and that's when we really know that we are in a Ken Loach film.

Why? Well, like Belgium's Dardenne brothers whose work his precedes, Ken Loach has documented the anger of the dispossessed but is always careful to steer away from nihilist revenge fantasy to serve an fanbase. We understand the constraints and feel the anger but instead of going to bed angry afterwards we will leave the end credits with some perception of the value of retaining humanity in dire circumstances and also of keeping lucid when faced with frustration.

Daniel's fatherly relationship with Katie and her kids has the kind of goodness to it that feels like the last vestiges of currency they have. This is not saintliness and it is important to avoid characterising Loach's filmmaking as documentary style. Loach makes fiction cinema and it doesn't pretend to be objective reportage. The good in Daniel Blake (whose name is drawn from the Old Testament and the pantheon of English poetry) is the same that suggests a need for the welfare system that has been so tightly wound that it must reject him. The common good and the commonality of good. While Daniel's efforts to keep the young family's spirits up might give us some unease when we know how others might misconceive it there is plenty we have seen to allow for it. He's not a saint he's just a bloke who, stressed, is yet unbroken.

That Loach is still making films like this after four decades should tell us just as much. These stories don't go away, are not ironed flat by the rhetoric of neo-liberalism nor so bludgeoned by the hard right. That he makes each one with consummate craft and keeps the blocks between us and the characters clear so that we might walk beside them in their trials is testament to his own resolve.

We need Ken Loach, we still need Ken Loach. We need him, his spare but powerful writers, his perfectly chosen casts and the plainness of his eye. We need him as the eighteenth century needed Hogarth and the nineteenth Dickens. And you will need a tissue or two if you want to get through this film. But if you do get through it you will be, however slightly, stronger for it.

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