There but for fortune

This is my review of I, Daniel Blake [DVD] [2016].

When joiner Daniel Blake suffers a heart attack, he becomes trapped in a surreal world in which medical staff deem him unfit for work, but his Employment and Support Allowance is withheld because he scores just three points too few in a ludicrous Work Capability Assessment questionnaire delivered by a robotic “healthcare professional” employed by the private company to which the DWP has outsourced the task of reducing benefit payments. The Catch-22 nightmare deepens as Daniel struggles to deal with the hurdles of qualifying for Job Seeker’s Allowance, his only other means of obtaining benefits, forced to demonstrate that he is spending 35 hours a week job-hunting when he is not supposed to be working for health reasons, so cannot in good conscience accept a job in the unlikely event of an offer.

The damaging effect of incoherent policies is further illustrated by the plight of the young single mother of two Katie whom Daniel befriends in righteous indignation over the way she has been sent hundreds of miles from London to Newcastle where housing is cheaper, but is denied access to the money she needs to feed and clothe her children.

Leavened with wry humour and often unbearably moving, this is a hard-hitting attack on the lack of “joined up thinking” in the provision of welfare in C21 Britain, and the way in which Jobcentre Plus staff have too often become dehumanised by jargon-ridden and misapplied procedures culled from the private sector, as if they will miraculously improve the situation. Their bureaucratic rules seem designed to drive benefits claimants to give up, despite genuine need. The social costs of these crude, short-sighted and counterproductive attempts to deal with the fundamental problem of scarce resources are made all too apparent.

In a step-chain of logic, Ken Loach shows us how sick people are made even more unwell, mothers driven to desperate measures and children damaged by “the system”. The simple dignity, humanity and support which people in need often show each other are in sharp contrast to the casual contempt of those paid to help them.

Skilful in arousing our sense of injustice, Ken Loach even manages to make shoplifting and graffiti seem justifiable, and to make me realise that sanitary towels might be a more useful donation to a food bank than biscuits.

The film may gloss over obvious ways in which Daniel Blake could have helped himself more, it may caricaturise and exaggerate the crassness of the Jobcentre Plus staff but it is a powerful indictment of “austerity Britain”, and is a sobering reminder of the fickle fate that gives some of us too much while others have too little. There is of course an irony in middle-class people paying to be reduced to tears over the plight of the poor, when they could simply have used their imagination and given the money directly, although charity is a sticking plaster response to a fundamental problem.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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