Social realism is not my favourite genre. While I recognise the power and potential in the cinematic representation of poverty and struggle, the films that result can often be a grind to sit through – fetishising misery without even the good grace to pair it with interesting cinematography.
The rare exceptions, though, tend to rank among my favourite films. These outliers range from Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves to Marion Cotillard’s stunning performance in Two Days, One Night. And, now, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the best new film of the year thus far. This unapologetically furious assault upon the United Kingdom’s broken welfare system has already sparked a heated debate between pundits on both sides (along with winning the Palme d’Or), but what distinguishes it from its social realist counterparts is its emphasis on not just authenticity, but humanity.
Of course, all self-respecting social realist works are ‘humanistic’, but too many linger on grief and suffering in favour while smothering the sparks of life glinting through the muck. Think films like Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man, which screened at the Alliance Française French Film Festival earlier in the year to a chorus of praise from most critics. But what that film, lacked for me, was any life to elevate its shakily-shot monotonous montage of the moral turpitude brought on by encroaching poverty.
I, Daniel Blake covers similar subject material to Brizé’s film, but it demonstrates that leavening the harsher moments – with humour, and light, and pure fucking humanity – doesn’t detract from its emotional or political impact. Loach’s film is often funny – right from its opening scene, where our eponym (Dave Johns, himself a stand-up comedian) can only laugh at the ridiculousness of his welfare assessment. Despite having recently suffered a heart attack and facing doctor’s orders to stay away from work, England’s privatised welfare system deems Daniel ‘fit for work’, and therefore ineligible for welfare.
The film that follows is, in large part, a Brazil-esque struggle against the absurdity of British bureaucracy; a bureaucracy that sanctions – ie withhold payments from – welfare recipients for minor mistakes like turning up a few minutes late to a meeting because of a broken-down bus. Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who’s recently moved to Newcastle from London, is thus sanctioned, and the friendship that forms with Daniel’s retired carpenter is the backbone of the film. The bond Daniel forges with Katie and her two children provides a warmth absent from both the welfare office and Katie’s apartment …since she’s unable to pay the bills.
But these thin rays of light do not shine from Katie and Daniel alone. I, Daniel Blake’s litany of injustice is frequently interrupted by morsels of humanity, whether it’s Daniel’s neighbours helping him fill out a form online or a kindly lady assisting Katie at the food bank. For me, the most memorable (and moving) example of this is when Katie tries to shoplift sanitary items; while she’s brusquely ushered into the manager’s office by a security guard, the manager’s response upon unpacking her bag is telling: he gives the items back to her and lets her leave the store. The system might be unfeeling, but that doesn’t mean that everyone working in the system is equally cruel.
The film recognises, to its credit, that these small gestures aren’t enough. Looking the other way now and again, offering fleeting charity – these don’t fix a broken bureaucracy that forces desperately ill people into poverty or life-threatening work. Contrast that scene with the climax of The Measure of a Man, which seems to suggest that the solution is refusing to go along with the system. That’s not enough; the system is not so easily defeated.
It’s easy to criticise the bluntness of Loach’s politics here, particularly if you disagree with his conclusions. Yet I, Daniel Blake’s forays to the soap box never feel unearned or inorganic. Daniel is a forthright bloke who doesn’t put up with any kind of bullshit, and his anger at the system is authentic, personal, justified. He’s not a victim, or a pauper, or another statistic: he’s a man of integrity, a man beaten down by a commodified, commercialised welfare system with no interest in integrity or humanity. Whether or not you agree with Loach’s politics, it’s hard to quibble with his anger.