Daniel Blake is 59, living in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. He still misses his late wife, but he’s a skilled carpenter proud of his work. A heart attack makes it impossible for him to work for a while, and so he begins the complex, frustrating process of getting employment and support allowance. A government health professional assesses him and decides he is well enough to work, contrary to his doctors’ opinions, and so the government advises him to apply instead for the jobseekers allowance.
During this process, he meets a young mother of two named Katie who is also applying for assistance. Daniel can’t help her financially, but he offers her help in doing some repairs in the government-funded flat she recently moved into.
The indignities that Daniel and Katie suffer affect them differently. Utterly defeated by the challenge of online forms and procedures, Daniel, played with believable irritability and compassion by Dave Johns, feels left behind by the system. But he has a quiet pride, a confidence in his value as a person, and the knowledge that he has been contributing to society all of his life. He has no one depending on him, and so he has more willingness to fight for himself.
Katie, on the other hand, has two children depending on her, and her insecurity about inability to provide for them leaves her vulnerable and frantic. Actress Hayley Squires perfectly captures that barely controlled panic. Daniel and Katie’s platonic relationship gives each of them a vital community, but they aren’t able to help dig each other out from their respective holes. Katie turns to desperate measures and pushes Daniel away in her shame.
This sad and rather didactic film, from director Ken Loach who has a history of movies with political agendas, portrays a cold, barbaric government system for assistance. While one of the employees shows concern and tries to go the extra mile for Daniel, most are practically robotic in their pursuit of correct procedure.
As an American, I can only guess at how realistic this might be, but you can read a couple of articles about this issue from The Guardian and The Independent. For reporting on how poverty and the welfare system function in the United States, you might be interested in the On the Media 5-part podcast series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.”
One of the few demonstrations of warmth that they experience is at a church food bank, where the people treat Katie humanely and help her in a particularly dark moment. However, there are limits to what they can give her, and the full force of her situation hits her hard. Moreover, the need to go there in the first place adds its own level of shame to her family.
In spite of the message-oriented script, I, Daniel Blake has lots to offer Christians who want to talk seriously about how to care for those in need. Recognizing the dignity of each human being and understanding the fact that any of us could find ourselves in a crisis in the right circumstances are good ways to start. I, Daniel Blake may not suit your politics, but it would certainly prompt a lively discussion.
Rated R for language, the movie is currently making its way around North America in limited release. (Sundance Selects)