Film Review: ‘I, Daniel Blake’

'I, Daniel Blake' Review: Cannes Film
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach's 'I, Daniel Blake,' about an ailing carpenter who fights to stay on welfare, is a film of moving relevance

The British director Ken Loach will be 80 years old in June, and he has worked in film and television for more than 50 of those years, but with his bone-deep empathy for the desperate and the downtrodden, you may feel that he was almost put on earth to make a dramatic feature about the current economic moment. “I, Daniel Blake” is one of Loach’s finest films, a drama of tender devastation that tells its story with an unblinking neorealist simplicity that goes right back to the plainspoken purity of Vittorio De Sica. The tale of Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle, who is fighting to hold on to his welfare benefits, even though his heart condition forbids him from working, is one that’s sure to resonate across national borders, because it’s about something so much larger than bureaucratic cruelty (although it is very much about that). It captures a world — our world — in which the opportunity to thrive, or even just survive, is shrinking by the minute. With the right handling, the movie has a chance to connect with audiences as few Loach films ever have. It’s a work of scalding and moving relevance.

Daniel, whose grizzled pate and washed-out pallor make him look much older than he is, has a way of barking at folks he doesn’t like, but really, he’s the soul of crusty friendliness. A widower with no children, he has recently suffered a heart attack and receives an Employment and Support Allowance from the British state. But then, for no good reason, his benefits are denied; the state wants him to go back to work — even though his physician is on record as saying he can’t. The movie takes us through the agony of the appeals process, which is a much bigger nightmare than it sounds like, because all Daniel is trying to win is the right to an appeal. He’s forced to jump through hoop after hoop, to hurry up and wait, and some of the demands are so unreasonable (he mustn’t just spend 35 hours a week applying for jobs he couldn’t take anyway; he must prove that he did) that the inescapable conclusion is that the system, as rejiggered by conservative government forces, has been engineered to toss people off the welfare rolls. It’s designed, in no small part, not to work.

The battle to keep those benefits, without which he’ll literally be out on the street, may be even more Sisyphean in Daniel’s case, because as an old-school carpenter with almost no formal education, he’s a lost relic in the digital age. “I’ve never been near a computer,” he says, and while such confessions bring nothing but scolding contempt from the clerks in the welfare office, the audience looks at Daniel and, indeed, sees a man — you may have at least one relative like him — who lacks the consciousness to evolve with technology. Daniel is forced to take a class in how to draw up a CV, but even then, he writes it out in longhand – which inspires the film’s most cutting welfare official, who’s like a Kafkaesque version of Jane Lynch, to look at that piece of paper as if it were a scroll of shame. The main thing Daniel learns in the class is that there are dozens of people applying for every low-wage job. In other words: Why even bother?

In the welfare office, Daniel spots a woman in a similar predicament, and being the Samaritan he is, he tries to help Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two kids get set up in their new flat. They’ve been squeezed out of the newly gentrified London, with no money and no prospects, and the four begin to hang out, because they have nothing much else to do. Yet in their way, they form a ragtag surrogate family. Squires has a dark-eyed beauty, yet her performance is so emotionally addled with dissolute worry that when we look at her, all we see is her stressed-out sadness. She’s a woman who has stopped being; she is merely existing. She literally cuts down on what she eats to have the money to feed her kids, and when she’s shopping at the government food bank and compulsively tears the top off a can of beans, dripping the syrup into her mouth, it’s a tearful epiphany — a fusion of hunger and degradation. It’s literally what she’s been driven to.

If “I, Daniel Blake” had been made 20 or 30 years ago, the personalities of those in the welfare office might have been more colorfully villainized. But the film’s despair arises out of its perception that it’s the whole impersonal system that’s to blame. The layers of bureaucracy, which have only been added to with the Internet, are designed to wear people down. Johns, in a powerful performance, gives Daniel a plucky decency but a lonely anger underneath that simmers until it needs to explode. Daniel works to give the system every benefit of the doubt, until it insults his very being, at which point he has an impromptu “Attica!” moment. But it’s only a moment. The quiet beauty of “I, Daniel Blake” — the reason it’s the rare political drama that touches the soul —  is that we believe, completely, in these people standing in front of us, as Ken Loach and the actors have imagined them. And when the movie ends, we feel like we won’t forget them.

Film Review: 'I, Daniel Blake'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 12, 2016. Running time: 100 MIN.


(U.K.-France-Belgium) A Le Pacte (in France) release of a Sixteen Films, Why Not Prods., Wild Bunch, BFI, BBC Films, Les Films du Fleuve, France 2 Cinéma, Canal Plus, France Télévisions, Le Pacte, Cinéart, Ciné Plus, VOO and Be tv production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Rebecca O’Brien. Executive producers, Pascal Caucheteux, Grégoire Sorlat, Vincent Maraval.


Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay, Paul Laverty. Camera (color), Robbie Ryan; editor, Jonathan Morris; music, George Fenton; production designers, Fergus Clegg, Linda Wilson; costume designer, Joanne Slater; sound (Dolby Digital), Ray Beckett; sound editor, Kevin Brazier; line producer, Eimhear McMahon; casting, Kahleen Crawford.


Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe. (English dialogue)

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  1. loco73 says:

    Human dignity and decency should not have a price. Yet everyday across this world, people like those portrayed in this movie get degraded, punished and devalued. Daniel Blake is all of us in some way. And that is both sad and frightening.

    The most touching and relevant movie to come out in many years…

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  3. radical redhead says:

    This eloquent review resonates with me.

    I’m here because of a dear, life long friend of mine who has just been summoned to a face to face assessment with the DWP. I’m in a state of shock. I never thought this could happen.

    My friend narrowly escaped death several years ago after suffering a brain haemorrhage. He also has other health conditions that render him vulnerable. I fear that he will be thrown off ESA onto JSA and that the stress might kill him.

    I’m truly confused…

    … A civilised nation displaying such inhumanity. I cannot comprehend it … That a wealthy nation like Britain can treat its own citizens like this.

    Even though this film has been released to critical acclaim, it won’t protect my friend.

    To see this process, slowly chipping away at his dignity, is harrowing. I have done nothing but cry today. I don’t know what will happen to him. His assessment is a few weeks before Christmas. This is too much to bear.

  4. Neil C Leeds says:

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but – having in the past been unemployed and sick with a huge mortgage, and recently been partly successful in a retrospective NHS CHC claim for may late mother’s Care Home fees, I can identify with every item in the reviews. I have a Cambridge maths/engineering degree …..

    We have to ask: WHO BUILT this system? It’s not just political, it’s societal and both main political parties had a hand in it, at different stages.

    There is very little room for common sense or compassion on the part of the ‘cogs’ who operate it. Though no doubt there are ‘ a few good men’ – and lots of women – trying to make it work

    But it’s a mess, and despairingly I see little sign of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition offering a ‘vision’ to lead us out of the wilderness

  5. Davy Craig says:

    I left a comment in May, before having seen the film and I’ve just seen it, today. I cried, almost throughout, then broke down outside. I’m still here and still fighting, but many haven’t made it. Everyone needs to see this film to witness what really goes on in this country. It will stand as a lasting document and comment on the Tories and how they govern. I hope this film wins every award possible, but people need to act and never allow this kind of thing to ever happen again!

  6. Sasa says:

    It really is heartbreaking, I can’t tell you how angry I was watching this, especially as I know these things to eb true first hand!!!

  7. Rob J says:

    A wonderful, heartbreaking film.

    Ken Loach is the last from a bygone era, a director with a social creed who speaks for those
    whose voices have been ignored. Film of the year, hands down.

  8. Mike says:

    Ken Loach is our greatest living filmmaker and shamefully ignored by the Oscars.

  9. Great to see Ken Loach still tackling the hardest issues, on the 50th anniversary of ‘Cathy Come Home’. Check out our film project about homeless actors from Cardboard Citizens performing ‘Cathy Come Home’ – an amazing story to celebrate Ken’s seminal film

  10. Davy Craig says:

    I’ve fallen foul of the system myself. I was given no course to appeal, then the appeal date was set for a time when I was having an operation. They deemed that I simply didn’t turn up and lied to me, saying I couldn’t appeal further. I lived off my credit card for two years, disabled and looked after by my ex. I managed to get it together and fight again, after coming close to giving up on life, altogether. I, eventually, won, after a DSS worker with a heart took my case on. They still tried and succeeded to deny me money I was entitled to. In one hand, I’m really looking to this movie, but in another, know that it will upset me and bring it all back, again. It’s never easy watching with Ken Loach films, though, because they’re so true and hard hitting. I hope it’s very successful!

  11. LOL says:

    This is the state of modern Britain? This despite it being watched over by the EU to ensure its citizens flourish?

    Time to leave the EU and go it alone.

    • Lell says:

      The terrible state of the UK has nothing to do with being in the EU but everything to do with having selfish rich people lord it over the rest of us for the past countless years, selling off all our assets to outside investors whilst lining their own pockets, allowing their buddies who are MDs and CEOs of huge companies to avoid paying their fair share of tax whilst paying their workers property wages which have to be supplemented by benefits and who also have a terrible disregard for ordinary people and the poorest and most vulnerable.

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