An incredible protest film from a radical veteran, I, Daniel Blake is one of the starkest and most uncompromising entries in Ken Loach’s body of work, and yet one of the most rousing and hopeful at the same time. At its heart is Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), an ageing carpenter who discovers that he is not eligible for employment assistance following a heart attack that prevents him from working. Amidst a sea of bureaucratic centres, phone queues and perky hold music, Blake has to continually move back and forth between actual doctors, who unequivocally pronounce him unfit for work, and “healthcare professionals” employed by the government, who just as unequivocally inform him that he doesn’t measure up to their fifteen-point criteria for employment assistance. Shot through with the naturalism that Loach has made his own, great sections of it almost play as a docudrama, an elaboration of a single, elongated bureaucratic procedure that speaks quite chillingly and presciently to the current post-Brexit landscape, even if it was completed before the results of the referendum were known.
I, Daniel Blake isn’t all procedure, though, since a great deal of the film is devoted to Blake’s friendship with Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two children that he meets in an employment assistance queue. Similarly, Blake spends a lot of time with the teenagers living in his apartment complex, several of whom are second-generation immigrants. In both cases, his profession as a carpenter gives his friendships a peculiarly lived-in, domestic quality, since he’s always fixing things (or contemplating what might be fixed), allowing Loach, in turn, to create a sense of a shared domesticity and friendship that supervenes the austerity and bleakness of most of the actual residential spaces. In fact, friendship is one of the key preoccupations of the film, especially the friendships that form in the midst of hardship, but also the fleeting forms of solidarity that constellate around the momentary experiences of indignity that occurs when bureaucracy sets out to erode subjectivity and individual autonomy as much as it does here.
At the same time, there is no romance in the film, nor any suspicion of romance as something that has to necessarily contour or qualify friendship and solidarity. For all the time that Blake spends at her house and with her children, Katie is never suspicious of his intentions and never too proud to refuse help, assuming solidarity and working-class kinship as a matter of course. Similarly, while Blake allows his teenage neighbours to import cheap trainers to his address, he never confuses their need for help with exploitation, nor even considers the possibility that they could be taking advantage of him in any way. The result is a profound cross-gender and cross-generational rapport that really clarifies the extent to which even indie mainstream cinema compartmentalizes sympathy and refuses to counter a form of human relations that aren’t defined first and foremost by traditional family structures or sexual and romantic attachment. Yet while I, Daniel Blake may be suffused with a wide (and in some ways post-white) array of working-class voices, it doesn’t ever feel as if Loach is consciously trying to be diverse either. Instead, his naturalistic cadence subsists in not desperately trying to heighten or romanticize a white-centric culture that isn’t really there any more, as well as his refusal to contrive solidarity and friendship into the expectations of traditional mainstream cinema.
As with so many of Loach’s other films, that naturalism is partly a matter of quietness. While there is lots of dialogue, there are also many silent sequences depicting Blake and Katie waiting in lines, phone queues and other forms of bureaucratic limbo. In one beautiful little sequence, Loach spends half a minute just following Blake around Newcastle as he waits for a computer to free up at the local library, building a profound and grounded sense of place in a completely incidental and unsentimental manner. By this point in his career, Loach has become an utter master at painting portraits without dialogue, and some of the longer sequences here often recall the beautifully observed details of Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D, as we follow Blake from one odd job to the next, unable to ever fully let go of his craft as carpenter. At these moments, there’s a deep affinity between Loach and Blake since, like Blake, Loach has always presented himself as a craftsman, a director who works with his hands to immerse himself in the stuff of everyday life. By the end, I, Daniel Blake feels like a late career rumination and contemplation of what it means to be a politically informed director as much as a portrait of this particular character.
In fact, Loach’s naturalistic genius is so foregrounded at these moments that it can feel a bit perplexing when the film periodically opts for a broader tone that plays more to Dave Johns’ background as a stand-up comedian, especially because this turn is often accompanied by an expository, ratiocinative register that seems designed precisely to take the audience out of the action. Yet that broad comedy also plays as a kind of resilience, a lust for life that sets itself against the vampiric insatiability of neoliberal bureaucracy. There’s also something inherently absurd about bureaucracy itself when take to this extremity, with the plosive frustration of endless waiting often subliminally giving way to a more awry absurdity, that weird tipsy feeling you get when you’ve been holding a phone to your ear and listening to jaunty hold music for over an hour. That gives a comically hallucinatory fringe to Loach’s naturalism, a sense that even the most “natural” elements of these tableaux are contrived as a dream, and that waking up is still a possibility. At the same time, this dream-time is never permitted to linger as a source of apathetic comfort either, since it’s regularly interrupted by confrontations with public servants – or, rather, with privatized employees who have been brought in to fill the roles that public servants once occupied.
These confrontations with privatized public servants often feel like the driving force behind the tonality of the film as a whole, especially insofar as they capture neoliberal beareaucracy itself as a kind of exercise in tone policing, as every “healthcare professional” takes it upon themselves to officiously remind Blake of what does and doesn’t constitute a “professional” tone in the face of chronic heart failure and terminal unemployment. In their mobilization of “professionalism” against the working-class, these scenes often reminded me of Stephane Brize’s The Measure of a Man, especially once Blake is required to attend a series of CV workshops to further “professionalise” himself and remain eligible for the next stage in the employment assistance process. Frankly and openly presented as a direct punishment for Blake’s indecorous tone during a particularly trying encounter with a “healthcare professional,” this workshop turns out to be one of the single most chilling sequences in Loach’s entire career. Shot with procedural detachment, we follow a CV expert as he berates a group of older working people for their lack of professional and digital literacy, reminding them that “for those of us in the real world…it’s not enough these days just to have the skills – you have to prove how keen you are, how dedicated.” Going on to instruct them how to compose a CV on SmartPhone, the sheer affective labour required to demonstrate engagement and participation in the workshop seems to eclipse anything required from even the most demanding employer, which of course also begs the question of just how terrifying and austere this new employment horizon will turn out to be.
In that sense, both I, Daniel Blake and The Measure of a Man seem to represent a new iteration of working-class naturalism that is distinct from, say, the films of the Dardennes, whom Brize, in particular, liberally quotes and acknowledges in his style and address. Nowhere is that clearer, in Loach’s film, than in the sequences depicting Blake’s efforts to compose and construct his professional self through digital media, since it turns out that he has never used a computer and doesn’t even know how to properly use a keyboard, mouse or cursor. In addition, he needs to be shown how to scroll down, move from page to page and cope with a frozen screen, a situation that some critics found implausible, but that I actually found quite compelling. First and foremost, it gives rise to a wonderful sequence in which a number of young people stop by and step up to give Blake their assistance and support. But this debilitation in the face of IT also works perfectly to capture the unwieldiness of government websites and bureaucratic interfaces more generally, since for all that the film might emphasise Blake’s generational alienation, it’s plain old-fashioned paperwork that still forms the most bewildering and disorienting obstacle to getting anything done.
In these sequences in and around computers, as throughout the rest of the film, Loach beautifully confronts shame and squalor right in the face without ever offering it as a voyeuristic spectacle or pity experience. In one especially incredible scene, Katie, on the verge of starvation, opens a cans of baked beans in a food stamp co-op before breaking down and crying with exhaustion and humiliation. It’s a moment that doesn’t shy away from abject poverty without losing sight of the bigger picture either, once again recalling The Measure of a Man in the deftness with which it present shoplifting – and the bind of working-class people employed to monitor shoplifting in an austerity economy – as the coal face of neoliberal bureaucracy. Strange as it might sound, it’s also a moment that has its fair share of comic touches, in one of the film’s most salient reminders of the way comedy – especially broad comedy – can function as a reproof to resignation or melancholy detachment. Although Loach has to adopt a certain austerity simply to mirror his subject matter, then, his broad comic strokes also work as a way of differentiating himself from that austerity as well, especially when his comedy seems blunt or “tasteless” in comparison to the gentrified, “tasteful” version of neoliberal Newcastle that we occasionally glimpse in the distant background.
More generally, Loach never takes an easy way out, refusing to reduce class struggle to a mere interpersonal struggle, but also refusing to discount the power of dedicated and charismatic individuals to effect change either. Never underestimating the size of the struggle but also affirming that hard-fought victories can still be won, I, Daniel Blake therefore feels like a tribute to the power of working-class memory to affirm the continuity of class struggle, as well as offering itself as just such a memory – a memory of Loach’s own career from this late vantage point but also a cautionary memory of neoliberal Britain established for future generations. In the incredible penultimate sequence, Blake himself makes a similar gesture, writing a protest in graffiti on the exterior of the employment assistance building. On the one hand, it’s an old-school gesture of civil disobedience and urban destruction, but it’s also Blake’s first introduction to social media, as his words are rapidly recorded and shared by a growing number of passers-by, translated into digital print. Just thinking about this scene sends shivers down my spine, with Loach bringing all his naturalistic gifts to bear upon evoking how the quotidian rhythms of the street – cars, buses, people walking and running by – gradually and subliminally coalesce around this one intractable gesture. Nothing more nor less than the mobilization of a crowd and collective articulation of class consciousness, its modest grandeur more than reconciled me to the Golden Palm win, even if I felt there were other films and younger directors that probably deserved a shot at first place as well.
That paves the way for the incredible final sequence, which sees Blake collapsing just before his final employment assistance plea and Katie reading out the plea at his funeral instead. I’m tempted to transcribe some of that speech here, but it feels more true to the film to leave the reader and viewer to experience it in situ, where the impact of the scenes that have preceded it give it the weight of a radical manifesto. In this last sequence, Loach finally embraces the discursive, expository quality that has lingered over the rest of the film, presenting a call to action and a rallying point designed to solidify and consolidate the momentary and yet precious crowd-formation of the previous scene. In some ways this is a departure from naturalism, but it also feels like the logical conclusion of Loach’s brand of naturalism, the only honest and ethical place left to go. Watching it reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which I read a year ago, and which adopts a similarly hallucinatory naturalism to Loach, adumbrating it until the only possible conclusion is a socialist manifesto. So it is here, with the difference that Loach’s considerably longer and more venerable career gives the very humility of this final gesture an even greater sense of gravitas and moment than is found in The Jungle. Upon receiving the Golden Palm, Loach felt “quietly awed,” and it is that quiet awe in the face of the possibility of change that makes I, Daniel Blake one of the very greatest films in his long and storied career.