Inside Story

Ken Loach’s wasteland

Cinema | The veteran director’s tender dive into the indignity of Britain’s welfare system tries too hard to avoid complication

David Hayes 2 December 2016 3501 words

Overdetermined: Dave Johns (Dan), Hayley Squires (Katie), Dylan McKiernan (Dylan) and Briana Shann (Daisy) in I, Daniel Blake.

A dark screen and a ringing telephone, followed by the sound of authority questioning a citizen, is an ominous start to any film. But in an immediate hint of I, Daniel Blake’s savvy, the voice of the interrogator is young, bright, female, working-class, and belongs to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, northeast England’s urban hub. As a “health professional” of elusive authority, she is checking the fitness of an older man from the same background. For him, the call is a frustrating push against box-ticking rigidity. Yet their social-sonic overlap works to establish a pervading contrast: between everyday human connection and the alienating impulse of an impervious system.

Dan, a genial, recently widowed, fifty-nine-year-old carpenter, has survived a heart attack. The health service’s treatment, including physiotherapy, has been state-of-the-art. His kindly doctor advises a recovery period, obliging him to seek financial support from a welfare maze he knows nothing of.

His physical condition should entitle him to the employment and support allowance, or ESA, which in principle covers the daily needs of those unable to work as a result of illness or disability. Eligibility for ESA is via a points-based work-capability assessment. That phone call, requesting details Dan had already provided on a lengthy printed form, is the first sign of trouble. The outsourcing of the process to American privateers deepens his gloom.

Dan is told by letter that he has got only twelve points on his assessment, below the minimum fifteen. He can appeal, but must wait for the “decision maker” to contact him by phone. When, he is given no clue. Meanwhile, he can apply for the rudimentary job seeker’s allowance. That mandates that he spends thirty-seven hours a week spent looking for work, and provides evidence of the search. Without the latter, sanctions – no money for fixed periods – can be imposed. Dan can’t go back to work yet. But he has to live. Stoic in his entrapment, he continues to seek a way through.

The functional city-centre Jobcentre Plus, with its semi-open interview booths and assembly-line waiting area, is well-peopled yet torpid. There is more form-filling, this time online. (“We’re digital by default.” “Well, I’m pencil by default!”) The claimants around him are helpful to a computer neophyte, but the process is vexing. (“Cursor? That’s an apt name for it!”)

Officialdom’s right and left hands seem unacquainted, its automatic mode a closed fist. Above all, it sees before it a file, case or problem, not an individual person. Dan’s despairing wit upholds a dignity it cannot acknowledge.

These elements fuse when, waiting in the office, Dan intervenes in an erupting quarrel. A young woman, with two small children in tow, has arrived minutes late for an appointment and been asked to return the next day. The family is new to the city, and mum is broke. The next person in line is willing to wait. But rules are rules, and they are enforced by uniformed guards: both the family and Dan himself are asked to leave.  

From this upsetting incident a cautious friendship grows. Katie, a Londoner in her twenties, can’t afford to live in her own city. After two years in a hostel, she has accepted transfer to a less expensive part of the country. Unemployed, barely coping in a spartan flat, she welcomes Dan’s DIY expertise and advice (“If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make this place a home!”) and so, too, his growing presence in their lives.

Dan’s bond with Katie’s family, carved out of ever-present worry and private grief, bears much of the film’s emotional weight. Its inkling of a better life for them all is symbolised by his handiwork: decorative wooden fish for her children, a bookcase for the time that her dream of resuming an Open University course is fulfilled. (“When you go back to those books, you’ll be flying!”)

Nor is the world around them heartless. Dan’s neighbours, who are engaged in dodgy selling of China-made trainers, the warehouse guys he solicits for work, the volunteers at the food bank Katie relies on, those other claimants – all exude a basic decency. The interminably awaited bureaucrats on Dan’s phone lack any edge, and so do the security guards. Two of the office staff are punitive, but one is notably sympathetic, as is a supermarket manager. If the system is rotten, the people are not.

Again, that contrast is I, Daniel Blake’s motif. There are no evil landlords in the film, nor heavies chasing rent arrears. A night-time sequence casts the movers in a subdued light. Street entrepreneurship, capitalism in the cracks, is almost jolly. The true menace is a secretive machinery of power using technologies of human communication (computer, phone, letter) to atomise and degrade the already vulnerable.

In the film’s shaping duality, which might likewise be called state versus society, it is the former which propels the narrative. Other things being equal, a different structure might have changed the dynamic. Then, for example, Dan and Katie’s agency (perhaps with her story told first) would be required, plus a sense of their pre-existing life-force and struggles. In turn, however, that would instantly bell the behemoth. It would be part of their reality. No longer would they be victims, at least not pure ones. No longer would the behemoth be so powerful, or at least not all-powerful.

But I, Daniel Blake couldn’t have been made like that. Of course, that’s not a criticism: every artist and team have the absolute right to make the work as they want. And the craft of director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty, his longstanding collaborator, is evident throughout this affecting film. But to posit this imaginary alternative is also to invite a closer look at the existing artefact.

The crux of the matter is that the state is effectively a uniform, dominating character in its own right. The film’s true narrative is the demonstration of its malignity. A mirror image is then called forth. Dan, and Katie when she enters the scene, must be given a profile that is equally polished. For it to be less so would allow them to emerge as characters, with the circumscribed autonomy, and shades of ambiguity, that real individuals have. But that would divert the audience’s gaze from where it must be.

This explains their virtuousness, as well as some features of the plot. Dan is free of the platitudes that often attach to his type (smoker, drinker, soccer-obsessed), doesn’t watch TV, and listens to BBC radio’s late-night shipping forecast a favourite of his dementia-affected wife, whom he cared for at home. His care for the environment is underlined when he rebukes a dog-owner who allows the animal to foul the grassy area below his flat. The persona is well-crafted, with just a whiff of unction.

In Dan’s circumstances there’s a puzzle. This sociable man has had a full working life in a skilled trade, and a childless marriage to a “smart, funny” woman (he doesn’t mention a job), and lives abstemiously in a modest flat. Yet he has no pension or savings. He is a Tyneside native with, it seems, no local relatives or network. True, he may have taken a financial hit in the later stages of his spouse’s illness, and he is shown declining a pal’s invite to the pub. And now he faces utter destitution in weeks.

Even odder is his rapid descent from gleaming clinic to bloodless job centre (or, to highlight an unexplored clash, from the state’s benign arm to its diabolic one). The film’s subtext is a system glitch, by inference malicious. A Sussex doctor had a spoilsport letter in the Guardian, which went unanswered: “Why did Daniel Blake not ask his doctor for a sick note? That was all that was needed. As a GP I have written countless sick notes to support patients with their claims; it’s a routine and simple task. But then there would have been no story.”

Dan’s own doctor, having vanished after the opening diagnosis, is said near the end when a blessed release from Dan’s Calvary is promised to be “furious” at his mistreatment. The dots barely join. And the film’s tendentiousness means some promising threads have to be discarded: what digitisation and surveillance are doing to both state and citizens, for example. Andrea Arnold’s subtle, Glasgow-set Red Road is an intriguing counterpoint here.

The home life of Katie’s family also solicits credulity, with bookworm Daisy well apart from any online circuit her classmates may share, while troubled Dylan is mocked at school over his broken shoes. (Adam Mars-Jones, in a penetrating, sympathetic review in the TLS, writes: “Apparently Daisy doesn’t feel the deprivation of lacking mobile phones and internet access, though realistically and this is a film that stakes everything on its realism a modern schoolchild without social media suffers something like ostracism by default.”)

“Not too Hogarthian,” the brilliant New Society editor Paul Barker advised his new contributor Angela Carter in the early 1960s, referring to the eighteenth-century artist’s portraits of London squalor. Here, Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is more the touchstone, especially the contrast between Nell’s innocence and the repellent moneylender Quilp. When Katie’s pinched condition momentarily eases, she speaks of being glad to afford “fresh fruit” for the kids rather than, say, taking them to build sandcastles at Whitley Bay. Once more, the film-makers’ didacticism suggests a tension between who Katie is or might be and who they need her to be.

Everything is of course, and rightly, at the story’s convenience. Newcastle’s own muted palette and dull clothes – not a soccer top to be seen, in this of all places – are stitches in a seamless design. Dave Johns (Dan) and Hayley Squires (Katie) do their utmost with the over-determined material. Johns, a stand-up comic, has the open-faced eager-to-pleaseness of that profession. What if he could have played Dan as a charismatic urban visionary, perhaps channelling Mark Rylance’s “Rooster” Ryan in Jez Butterworth’s condition-of-England play Jerusalem? Another pipedream, of course. For that would risk real argument, as opposed to the clamorous Guardian-versus-Mail position-taking that is the film’s preordained outcome.

A creative choice of this kind is not for Loach, who shoots in sequence, metes out the script scene-by-scene, and keeps tight control. For him, the idea also might echo “poverty porn” TV’s lurid depictions of benefit streets and cheats, which he calls “fascist.” Yet some involved in these crass, formulaic shows use them, and the broadcasters, to gain a bit of social leverage. It’s not pretty, but there’s a rude honesty about it. Everyone knows where they are.

In Loach’s film, by contrast, the inner life – including the pre-ironic sensibility – could as well be a version of the 1930s or 1970s. Ken Loach watches TV, if only to execrate those “reality” shows and the media’s “appalling right-wing bias.” His characters, by contrast, are made to feel as if they have never been in the same room as a set. In one creaky scene between the valiant actors, the thought “Free the Newcastle Two!” did begin to form.

Artistically, the director’s method confines them to an unyielding present, their past mythicised or redacted (who was Dan in the Thatcher–Blair years? Better not go there). Politically, it envelops the story in darkness-before-the-dawn aspic – a dawn that is only ever possible outside the film, for catharsis within it would be false consolation, a utopian surrender. Reality is a nightmare that no one can be allowed to escape.

I, Daniel Blake was conceived and is strongly marketed as a political film, its intention to expose the damaging human impact of the Conservative government’s welfare cuts since 2010 (from 2010 to 2015 the Tories were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Its message has been amplified by its receiving of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and by Jeremy Corbyn’s consolidation as Labour leader. Ken Loach has made an hour-long promotional video about Corbyn, an old ally, who has returned the compliment by deploying the film at prime minister’s question time and speaking at many meetings where I, Daniel Blake is screened.

It would be trite, then, to speak, in relation to the film, of a “blurring of the boundary” between art and politics. For its makers, no such boundary exists, and their stance has set the template. I, Daniel Blake has sparked a host of news features and opinion columns as well as straight, mainly warm reviews. Many loop from Katie’s trauma into the growth of food banks, around to the “bedroom tax” (which imposes a charge on housing-benefit recipients deemed to have surplus space) and out again through Dan’s persecution. Most quote Loach’s phrase “conscious cruelty,” which he uses to scorn government policy in every interview, cultural slot, or Question Time–type program.

These categorical and viral leaps make the very few who seek to make distinctions between fact and fiction when talking about the film, look pedantic – or politically biased, or simply heartless. (Toby Young, a virtuoso of needling intellectual knockabout, won more choice jibes for his Mail review.) In this sense, the reception of I, Daniel Blake as at once poignant, reality-based social drama and accessory of a movementis an impressive marketing triumph.

And it’s possible that by spreading awareness of Britain’s welfare system, it might ensure more respect and practical support for some of the millions pressed hard by unemployment, poverty, disability, and deficient social care. Many here cite Loach’s renowned BBC TV drama Cathy Come Home, shown in 1966, in whose wake the housing charity Crisis was formed. They see I, Daniel Blake as a potential reprise of that decade’s meeting between “social realism” and a concerned liberal public.

Yet presenting the work as “more than a film” carries risks in both directions. Trading on the film’s realism invites scrutiny of how it achieves its effects; hitching it to a fervent political vehicle makes it harder for its cause to win allies across the spectrum.

These points come together in a late scene. Dan’s lone street protest against a callous regimen wins rollicking sympathy from a passing band of party girls, and then guttural solidarity from a bellicose, diminutive man speaking Glasgow Scots who – as Dan is hustled away – delivers a meticulousrant about the evil Tories.

The numerous caricatures totter on their high heels. That the words are proxy for director and writer, hammering into line any in the audience who haven’t been paying attention, is clear. But the jester figure is another evasion. Why not a chorus from Changing Lives, Oasis Aquila Housing, Tyne and Wear Against Unemployment, East Durham Trust, the Newbridge Project, or Talk Socialism? These initiatives, part of Newcastle’s varied civic ecology, hosted a screening of the film at the Tyneside Cinema in early October. They were all around when the film was being made. So were, and are, any number of self-help community groups, far-left organisations, and several well-endowed trade unions.

That conceit is, of course, just as vain as the previous two. And once more, the creators are wholly within their rights. Art is a lie that tells the truth and all that. But the contradiction here goes deep. In I, Daniel Blake, everyday politics and social veracity would get in the way. The Newcastle One would have allies, and be no longer a mere receptacle of feeling. This, too, would make for complication. The film needs to be drained of that, including actually existing politics, in order to have the freedom to press its agenda when it ends. I, Daniel Blake is conceived as a pretext to its own afterlife.

I, Daniel Blake’s climax, heartfelt and rousing, has been a long time coming. It might be shot in sequence, but the script is written backwards. Its arc reminded me of a story in Luis Buñuel's lovely memoir, My Last Breath, when the Spanish director summons a friend from his slumbers to prove to a disbelieving guest his ability to predict the ending of any film from its opening scene.

On its own a noble statement of individual dignity, the final oration is a spur to action. Outside the film, that is: the intended target is the applauding (and snuffling) cinema audience, not the silent one on screen. The filmic transformation of Dan the character, Everyman Dan, into Citizen Dan, is completed by his apotheosis into the multitude: “We are all Daniel Blake.”

The very name is artfully delocalised, connoting ancient righteousness and, via William Blake’s Jerusalem, England’s spiritual renewal. At the same time, Ken Loach and Jeremy Corbyn are the last people on earth to muster under an English patriotic banner.

The urgent desire of I, Daniel Blakes championsto possess and direct its meaning is plain. The same impulse underpinned the director’s view of his The Spirit of ’45, about the legacy of the Labour Party’s postwar electoral victory, released in 2014. It was a piece of breathtaking cinematic chutzpah. Yet a year later, the far left’s takeover of the party materialised the fantasy. Beside other recent developments – a frayed social contract, an ascendant centre-right, addictive tribalism and groupthink, a hectic media open to “post-truth” temptations, all culminating in Brexit – Ken Loach’s cinema and politics alike today enjoy a rare prestige.

In terms of I, Daniel Blake “as a film,” the Palme d’Or raised the stakes. The award reflects France’s enduring regard for Loach as a trusted celebrant of Britain’s own olvidados, or forgotten ones. An Oscar in Trump-era America would match that. Audiences in other realms will doubtless offer fresh insights, and perhaps accolades. The Cannes prize’s percolating effects – from overwrought reviews to an infatuated Labour machine – are still unfolding.

The limits are clearer in the political arena, where the ultra-sectarian Loach is a poor advocate of his own cause. The same is true of Corbyn, under whom Labour is a dead zone. Both men have spent decades on the British far left, which asphyxiates everything in its shade. Even in a minatory age of topsy-turvy politics, it is hard to see their one-size-fits-all approach – activist protest by client groups, drenched in self-congratulation – as anything but a road to nowhere. This matters, for a Labour-led government with a centrist, patriotic, optimistic appeal is the best chance of improving the lives of society’s most insecure. Tony Blair, who won three elections on that basis, is right to say that millions of people in Britain are now “politically homeless.” And he's not talking about populists.

In the end, both worlds, film and politics, have something in common. Directing a feature and leading a party or nation are each, above all, a craft. They involve a contract with audience or public, who – today more visually literate than ever – make a judgement not just on the story being told but also on the way it is told, the performance itself, the repertoire of skills on display. That is now part of what it is to be modern. The stakes are being raised all round.

Ken Loach evidently still passes the test among those who matter. The acclaim that has greeted his latest work reflects his continuing ability to treat pained lives with tenderness, and to move both audiences and critics. Attention must be paid and respect given. Even when the lasting impression of I, Daniel Blake is its failure of moral nerve. •