Over 5 million people in the United Kingdom claimed welfare benefits as of February 2015, according to the Department of Welfare and Pensions. It is the reality of life for these individuals and families who require state aid, in light of this director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty turn their eyes to the benefits system and the welfare state. I, Daniel Blake is the story of one man who becomes reliant on benefits when he is deemed fit to work by the state after a heart attack and how he and his new friend Katie and her two children struggle to navigate through the bureaucracy of the social welfare system and indeed life itself.

The plot follows from scene to scene in a manner not strictly natural and flowing, giving a staccato sense at times. It feels Blake is fumbling around in circles, trapped in a downward spiral finding no help from many of the officials he comes into contact with. However, one character, played by Natalie Ann Jamieson, a worker at the social welfare office Blake visits, shows compassion to him. Those scenes deliver a much appreciated break from the disheartening cyclical nature of Blake’s odyssey through the abundant red tape of the British welfare system.

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The soundtrack to the film is, for the most part, either non-existent or unnoticeable with a quiet stillness that adds to the realist nature of the film. The lack of dramatic music seems to represent Daniel Blake’s slow, frustrating slog through his world.. It’s an interesting choice and is very effective. This also draws further attention tothe few moments actually featuring music, including a repeated BBC shipping forecast theme (Sailing By) which was Blake’s late wife’s favourite, and a stark dramatic tone used at the darkest moment in Katie’s story.

Dave Johns gives a great performance as Blake portraying a serious and frustrated character- a huge change from John’s usual stand up comedy and appearances on 8 Out of 10 Cats and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Johns fully flexes his muscles as an actor here, however the star of the piece in terms of acting talent is Katie, played by Hayley Squires, a single mother of two relocated to Tyneside away from her family and life in London. Katie grows a great deal out of her experience with Blake and the two make a dynamic duo, helping each other out and showcasing each other’s strengths and weaknesses as characters.

Squires, in one particularly powerful and heartbreaking scene at a food bank, shines as a beacon of talent in the film when she’s so starved she is forced to eats beans from a can With her desperation and shame clear for all to see it is a touching moment that drives home their harsh reality. It is uncomfortable to watch Squire’s portrayal, and it is a brutal scene where all those around her wish to help, but Katie still feels as if she is going under.

Katie’s daughter Daisy, played by Brianna Shan, adds a fantastic sense of perspective to the narrative, her innocence and ignorance drawing attention to injustices around her. Instead of detracting from the piece as often poor child acting can, Shan is an admirable talent.

Hayley Squires as ‘Katie’ struggling for attention in a Welfare Office.

Despite all this Dickensian darkness the film is surprisingly funny, with Blake’s opening conversation with a medical professional for his assessment dripping with sarcasm and a common man’s sharp and situational dark wit. Trying to explain his health issues to the assessor, Blake is asked to follow pre-made questions regarding his mobility, much to his chagrin. Following this Blake is met time and time again with the solution to his tech-phobic queries all seemingly being available online. Blake’s painfully awkward fumbling through web pages on a library computer is made all the more painful when his time runs out and his application is cancelled, and the whole situation screams familiarity to both older viewers and the younger audience who has undoubtedly played tech-support many a time for their family.

Overall the film is a darkly comic drama that plays out the frustrations of those who’ve fallen into a hole in the benefits system, the message is strong and Blake’s grim end is a powerful final damnation of the state of the welfare provided to citizens in the UK, with poor and disadvantaged people being denied the opportunity to better their situation. I, Daniel Blake is a fantastic and compelling drama that delivers its message with a deliciously dark humour.

5-stars

I, Daniel Blake is in cinemas from October 21st.

Conor O’Doherty

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