In 1969, a thirty-three-year-old English director named Ken Loach released Kes, a fiery protest against the British class system, and the film that would define his career. Set in the northern mining town of Newcastle, Kes dramatized the life of a teenage misfit named Billy Casper, a young man from the lower working class who had few, if any options in life. One day he finds a kestrel, the bird that inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins’ great poem The Windhover, and, in a sense, his own soul. For a brief period of time, he is set free from the dreary high school that seems determined, not only to deny his aspirations, but to crush his spirit. That all ends when his brutish older brother kills the bird, an act of pure spite that reflects how well the English working classes have internalized the the contempt of the ruling classes for their inferiors, themselves. As I wrote in my review of Kes, “In another film about alienated youth, like the French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun and a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches.” It’s forty-seven years later, and little has changed. Not only has the English class system gotten even worse, Ken Loach has lost none of his passionate hatred for the grubby little bureaucrats who destroy the lives of decent working-class people, and who have nothing to say for themselves but “I’m just doing my job.”
I would like to think that Billy Casper, who was fifteen-years-old in 1969, and who would be about sixty now, grew up to be Daniel Blake, a fifty-nine-year-old carpenter, and widower, who also lives in Newcastle, and who has recently suffered a heart-attack. For Daniel Blake’s cardiologist, it’s an open and shut case. He’s not ready to look for work, clearly eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance benefits program, but Daniel Blake, an honest, forthright man who’s labored for over forty years in the skilled trade that he learned, perhaps, when he accepted the kind of apprenticeship that Billy Casper turned down, does not fully understand the forces that are conspiring for his destruction. The film opens with a phone call. Blake learns, to his chagrin, that it’s not his doctor who will make the decision to approve or deny benefits, but a “health care professional,” an insurance company bureaucrat who asks him a series of questions that have nothing to do with his heart. I would guess that for most people watching I, Daniel Blake, it’s pretty obvious. The “health care professional” is looking for an excuse to turn him down. He should calmly bullshit her “assessment.” Blake is no fool, but he is uneducated, and more importantly, innocent. In fact, if I had to describe Daniel Blake in one word it would be just that, “innocent.” Intellectually he understands what the assessment is all about. “Don’t you work for an American company?” he says to the woman interrogating him. “Don’t ask me about my ass. Ask me about my heart.” Deep down inside, however, Blake thinks the world is fair, that if he plays fair with the bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance program, they’ll play fair with him. Needless to say, they don’t.
Blake, who has no computer skills, is poorly prepared to navigate the bureaucracy at the Employment and Support Allowance program to appeal the decision to deny him benefits. He has to file the appeal online, but he doesn’t know how to use a computer. While in the waiting room at the “job center,” Daniel sees Katie Morgan, a single mother in her twenties who’s told her appointment’s been canceled because she’s late. Katie, a recent transplant to Newcastle who’s been gentrified out of London, protests that she had trouble navigating the bus system in her new city. She’s only a few minutes late, she pleads, clearly in distress. She has no money, and her children are hungry, but the little Eichmanns at the “job center” are as callous to the pretty young woman as they are towards the aging widower. If Billy Casper in Kes finds a pet falcon, Daniel Blake finds a surrogate daughter. Blake, who fights with his neighbors, and is often cranky and uncooperative, even with people trying to help him, immediately comes to Katie’s defense. They become friends. He meets her two children. Suddenly, like Billy Casper, Daniel Blake has a reason to live, two surrogate grandchildren and their mother who have just moved into a run down apartment badly in need of repair, and who can use his skills as a carpenter. As their relationship develops, we begin to think that the film just might have a happy ending, that by helping Katie and her children, Daniel is building an emotional home for himself, that solidarity between members of the working-class might help overcome the indifference of the callous English government. Sadly, it’s not that easy.
There is a moment at Katie Morgan’s apartment that brings home all of the pain the she feels all the more powerfully because of how she tries to hide it. After she cooks a meal for her two children, and for Blake, who has helped her insulate her windows against the coming Winter, Katie’s daughter asks her why she’s prepared three plates instead of four. I’ve already eaten, the young mother protests, but both her children knows lying. Kids aren’t stupid, especially where their parents are concerned. Blake pushes his plate back in Katie’s direction but she refuses the food she so badly needs. She wants the relationship between her family and Daniel Blake to be one of solidarity not charity, and for that she’s willing to go hungry. Later, Blake, Katie, and her two children go to a food bank together. There’s a long line, and an even longer wait, but when they finally get inside the pantry the staff are all kind and sympathetic, nothing like the callous bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance job center. One woman takes Katie’s two children aside and gives them breakfast. Another guides her through shelves filled with fresh vegetables and tins of meat, which, as modest as they are, also look like a rich bounty for the hungry single mother. Suddenly, Katie leans over into a corner, opens one of the cans, and starts eating the tinned meat with her fingers. She’s just so hungry, she sobs, as she’s led to a chair to finish her meal, then breaks down and cries. Katie, who can maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of indifference, can’t control herself in the face of even the most basic kindness, something, we suddenly realize, has been in short supply in her young life.
If I, Daniel Blake hasn’t pissed you off by this point, you’re probably not human, but this film is so powerful that even cold blooded, alien space lizards will be reaching for their pitchforks and torches by the time it’s all over. How could this be happening to good, hard working people in a rich first world country? Is this kind of government austerity really necessary? Did the bankers really need their bailout that badly? I am ambivalent about the ending of I, Daniel Blake, which is as bleak, and gut wrenching as the ending of Kes. I might have chosen differently. I don’t think a happy ending that came out of a friendship built on a spontaneous act of solidarity would have been taking the easy way out. But as with all great leftist agitprop, Ken Loach wants to come out of the theater full of rage. He wants to motivate us to take direct political action, not uplift us morally. I, Daniel Blake is not art for art’s sake. On the contrary, it has a very specific, very concrete objective, to dismantle a system that in Loach’s own words will inevitably drive people to “frustration, despair, hunger and possible suicide.”