'Daniel Blake' Skewers The Red Tape That Keeps The Downtrodden Down

Dec 23, 2016
Originally published on December 24, 2016 6:49 pm

We've all been there — hopelessly tangled in red tape, struggling to get a faceless bureaucracy to hear us. So the conversation that takes place under the opening credits of Ken Loach's absurdist dramedy, I, Daniel Blake, will be as familiar as it is sublimely ghastly.

Daniel, played with exasperated stoicism by standup comic Dave Johns, is talking to an interviewer who's asking vaguely medical questions, but who is neither a doctor nor a nurse — "I'm a health care professional," she intones when challenged. But none of the questions she asks have anything to do with his medical condition. He's recently had a heart attack on the job, and his doctors have ordered rest, stress-avoidance and absolutely no work.

This places Daniel between a rock and a hard place (the rock being Britain's National Health Service; the hard place being its pensions department). He can only get a check from the latter if he's actively seeking and able to take a job, something his doctors have expressly forbidden.

He can apply for a waiver online, but he doesn't know his way around a computer. They have a number he can call if he's dyslexic and can't use the online system, he's told.

"Great," he says, "give me the number."

"You'll find it online."

Loach is both an award-winning filmmaker and a social activist, and I, Daniel Blake allows him to combine those passions. The British director isn't just skewering a system that seems designed more to frustrate than to help. He's arguing that a prosperous society that places obstacles in the paths of people who are already struggling ought to be ashamed of itself.

He makes his argument with a passion that's contagious: first, when the title character tries to struggle free of his own red tape, and then when Daniel tries to help Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who's getting a different sort of runaround.

Daniel's assistance, such as it is, gets them both thrown out, but in the process, he gains a sort of family. Soon he's playing grandfather, popping over to Katie's apartment to fix heaters and caulk windows (doctor's orders notwithstanding, he quite likes working when he can), and when he sees that Katie is barely eating so her kids will have more, he accompanies her to a food bank.

There, she endures a humiliation that, as it plays out in a wrenching scene, should move the most hardened supply-sider. It should also remind audiences that Loach remains, in his 80th year, not just a crusader for, but a poet of, the underclass.

Yes, I, Daniel Blake is, like many of Loach's films, a piece of social-realist fiction. It's also a cinematic cry from the heart, uncommonly resonant at this moment in time.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

British director Ken Loach is both an award-winning filmmaker and a social activist. His latest film, "I, Daniel Blake," combines those two passions. It's about a man tangled in bureaucratic red tape. And though Loach cast a stand-up comic in the title role, critic Bob Mondello says the film is about a situation almost no one would regard as funny.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We've all been in Daniel Blake's shoes, trying to get a faceless bureaucracy to just hear us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

NATALIE ANN JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Good morning, Mr. Blake. My name's Amanda. I've got a couple of questions here for you today to establish your eligibility for employment support allowance. It won't take up much of your time.

MONDELLO: This conversation takes place under the opening credits.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Could I just ask firstly, can you walk more than 50 meters unassisted by any other person?

DAVE JOHNS: (As Daniel) Yes.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) OK. Can you raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) I filled it in already on your 52-page form.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Yeah, I see that you have, but unfortunately I couldn't make out what you had said there.

MONDELLO: You've heard about the rock and the hard place.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Can you raise either arm to the top of your head as if you were putting on a hat?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) I've told you, there's nothing wrong with me arms and legs.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Could you just answer the question please?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Well, you've got me medical records. Can we just talk about me heart?

MONDELLO: Daniel Blake had a heart attack on the job. He looks hale and hearty. He's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) So was that a yes that you can put a hat on your head?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Yes.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) OK, that's great. Do you have any significant difficulty conveying a simple message to strangers?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Yes, yes, it's [expletive] hard. I'm trying to tell you, but you're not listening.

JAMIESON: (As Employment Support Allowance Assessor) Mr. Blake, if you continue to speak to us like that, that's not going to be very helpful for your assessment.

MONDELLO: I mentioned a rock and a hard place. In Daniel's case, the rock is England's National Health Service. The hard place - its pensions department. His doctors say he should avoid stress. The pensions folks...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) On the one hand, job seeker's allowance is only for those able and ready to work. But if you're ill, you'll have to apply for employment and support.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Well, then can you give me a form for, you know, job seeker's allowance and then an appeal form for employment and support?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You have to apply online, sir.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) I cannot do that. You know, you give me a plot of land, I can build you a house. But I've never been anywhere near a computer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) But you know what? We're digital by default.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Well, I'm pencil by default.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There's a special number if you've been diagnosed as dyslexic.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Right, well, can you give us that because with computers, I'm dyslexic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You'll find it online, sir.

MONDELLO: Director Ken Loach isn't just skewering a system that seems designed more to frustrate than to help. He's arguing that a prosperous society that places obstacles in the paths of people who are already struggling ought to be ashamed of itself. And he's arguing it with a passion that is contagious - first when the title character, who's played with wit and resilience by Dave Johns, tries to struggle free of his own red tape and then when Daniel tries to help a young single mother who's getting a different sort of runaround.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I, DANIEL BLAKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You've created a scene. I think you need...

HAYLEY SQUIRES: (As Katie) Oh, I've created a - no, Mate...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think I need you to leave the building.

SQUIRES: (As Katie) ...If I was going to create a scene, you'd know about it. Trust me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You need to leave the building.

SQUIRES: (As Katie) Well, what am I supposed to do?

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Jesus Christ, who's first in the queue?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I am.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) Do you mind if this young lass...

SQUIRES: (As Katie) Come here.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) ...Signs on first?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No, no, you carry on.

JOHNS: (As Daniel) There you go. Now you can go back to your desk and let us sign on and do the job that a taxpayer pays you for. This is a bloody disgrace.

MONDELLO: He gets them all thrown out, but in the process, he makes a friend. Soon, Daniel's playing grandfather, popping over to the woman's apartment to fix heaters. And when he sees that she's barely eating so her kids will have more, he accompanies her to a food bank.

There, she endures a humiliation that should move the most hardened supply-sider and that will remind audiences that Ken Loach remains in his 80th year not just a crusader for but a poet of the underclass.

Yes, "I, Daniel Blake" is a piece of social-realist fiction. It's also a cinematic cry from the heart, uncommonly resonant at this moment in time. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.