When Daniel Blake is forced to take time off work, to recover from a heart attack, he attempts to sign on for an invalidity benefit, to make ends meet, but his legitimate request is deliberately frustrated, and then denied by ‘the system’.
I, Daniel Blake (2016) is a socially conscious, interpretation of one man’s experience of Government bureaucracy, and the deliberate loops and hurdles put in place by social services to stop people, within their legitimate rights, from claiming benefits they have a legal, and moral, right to.
Daniel Blake is not work-shy; he is a hard-working man, recently widowed, and without the support of children, or close family. While at the Jobcentre Plus Office he befriends a single mother and her two children. He continues to help her out, repairing her house, and entertaining her children as a stand-in father. Her boy shows signs of post-stress disorder and anger issues: pushing a supermarket trolley into the road, and repeatedly throwing a ball back and forth. Daniel Blake helps her financially, and by providing moral support. He goes with her to a food bank where she desperately opens a tin of spaghetti, forcing the contents into her mouth. In her self-sacrifice, giving all available food to her children, she has herself gone into starvation.
The story is told in a straightforward manner, in the realist tradition, using a restrained ‘natural’ aesthetic. This allows the audience to focus on the characters and their situations without distraction. In some respects I, Daniel Blake could almost be a Victorian tragedy, with biblically Victorian themes like the Good Samaritan, extreme poverty, homelessness, and ‘the fallen woman". But here it’s handled without the crass and patronising sentimentality of the Victorian moral painters.
In Secrets and Lies (1996) another film realistically depicting working class life, a middle class black woman, an eye doctor, adopted at birth, seeks out her working class birth mother. I, Daniel Blake covers similar thematic ground: injustice, the struggle for truth, and reconciliation. Daniel Blake’s shining humanity makes him, not just a working class hero, but a hero fit for any class. Unlike Secrets and Lies, which turns tragedy into triumph, and the secrets and lies are overcome through talking and love, the tone in I, Daniel Blake is bleak and unforgiving, almost always tragic. The world of Secrets and Lies takes place within a family: interpersonal challenges are transcended within this context: in I, Daniel Blake the family operates in the wider context of a broken society and a wilfully callous benefits system. One that is rigged against decent people, deliberately pushing them into homelessness, and mortal danger.
I, Daniel Blake received praise from ‘left-wing’ circles for its honest portrayal of life in contemporary Britain, along with criticism for being a ‘propaganda’ tool, by some ‘right-wing’ commentators, who argued that it paints a deliberately negative picture.
The story of I, Daniel Blake is one of tragedy. It offers a deadpan entry into a grim, callous world, but it is also a celebration of kindness and sacrifice, depicting the last vestiges of community spirit, social empathy, and the nobility of altruism, in what is an otherwise selfishly-hardened, only-for-profit world.