I didn’t know too much about Ken Loach’s astonishing new film before we saw it, and that probably helps it to have more of an impact. His naturalistic approach means that it looks every inch a documentary; but it is scripted, by Paul Laverty; and acted, with the two main roles being taken by actors with relatively little experience, which lends the film a further sense of freshness and reality. There is no West End glamour here.
It’s just the story of the eponymous good man, unable to work because he is recovering from a heart attack, but active enough to be considered fit for work at his Work Capability Assessment. One wonders how many people fall into that gap? His only chance of income is to receive Jobseekers Allowance; and to do that, he has to prove that he has been looking for work. So he spends his days getting his CV out to anyone who’ll accept it; but it’s all a waste of everyone’s time, as, if he is offered a job as a result of it, doctors’ orders say he can’t accept it. It’s a Catch-22. Transgress any of the rules, miss any of the appointments and you face a “sanction” – a sword of Damocles ready to fall on you without warning. Sanctions sound ominous and eerie; like a visiting ghost or a revenge lobotomy à la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The reality is that a sanction is simply another way of expressing the right of the government to refuse to pay the financial assistance to which you are entitled. When we first meet Katie, she has been sanctioned because she missed her appointment – not knowing the location she didn’t realise the bus was going in the wrong direction. So her payments are stopped. That’s a sanction.
Iain Duncan Smith has criticised the film for its unfair portrayal of Jobcentre staff. Well, it’s been many a year (and many a government change) since I had to endure the humiliation of regular attendance at a jobcentre, but my instinctive reaction to his viewpoint is to disagree. There is a very kindly portrayal by Kate Rutter of Jobcentre Assistant Ann, who does her best to guide Daniel Blake through the myriad of forms and paperwork, even to the extent that she is criticised by her boss for spending too much time trying to help him. Without a doubt, there are kindly, helpful and human Jobcentre staff out there. Even the Rottweiler-like clerk Sheila, a brutally unsympathetic but riveting performance by Sharon Percy, offers him a referral to a food bank, which is (I believe) above and beyond what the job requires. Mind you, that’s not before she’s destroyed his confidence, ridiculed his attempts to comply with the legal requirements, and chalked up another sanction for the team.
It’s not the Jobcentre staff at fault – they have their own jobs to perform, targets to achieve, bosses to satisfy and sanctions to apply; and no one will know more than them the consequences of losing your job. It’s the system that’s at fault. A system where Health Care Professionals (a generic, meaningless term that simply means you’re paid to make a healthcare decision) are given the responsibilities that should fall to medically trained doctors and nurses. A system where you can only communicate by using the Internet, no matter the level of your technological expertise, or your ability to access to IT equipment. A system where you can’t put right a wrong, no matter how innocently it came about, until you get the call from the “Decision Maker”, one of these doom-laden job titles designed to intimidate. No call from the Decision Maker, no appeal. Of course, you can’t get the Decision Maker to call you. And you’re not allowed to call the Decision Maker yourself. Oh no, he’s far too busy making other decisions to have time for the likes of you. In other words, a system that completely lacks flexibility or common sense because it doesn’t see its customers as people, just as data to be processed. It’s no surprise that Daniel eventually loses his cool. Breaking the law is finally a way of getting society to recognise his existence.
One of the subtle strengths of the film is that it’s remarkably apolitical. I can’t recall any political party being either blamed for the struggles of Daniel or his friend Katie, nor praised for their wise use of resources. It’s just the very personal tale of widower Daniel, his friend Katie and her children. They are, however, part of a wider community; and the support given by the community is absolutely heart-warming. Whether it be the kindness of the food bank volunteers, the chirpy cheek of Daniel’s ducking and diving neighbours or the individuals who turn a blind eye when they should be enforcing the law, the local community is portrayed with real warmth and affection, and a sense that they’re pulling together to protect their weakest. That’s why, despite the savage misery of many aspects of the film, there are some truly uplifting sequences too; and, much to my surprise, it’s frequently funny. And you’re not laughing whilst feeling guilty about doing so – you’re laughing in companionship at and solidarity with the utterly ludicrous situation these people have to face.
Dave Johns, who plays Daniel Blake, is perhaps better known as a stand-up comic, and you can see how his comedy skills enhance his portrayal. Of course, he’s not playing the role for laughs, far from it; but he does ease the humour out of those darkest situations with a true lightness of touch. Comedy at its best reveals what life’s really like; Mr Johns gives us a true insight into Daniel’s hopes and aspirations, his decency, frustration, and sadness; his need to support others, and his expectation for just a little support back when he needs it. It’s a superb performance – not that you get the sense that it’s a performance at all.
Similarly, Hayley Squires is remarkably convincing as Katie, recently moved to Newcastle from London with her two beloved children; a fish out of water and easy prey to manipulators like Ivan, who has a solution to her money worries. There’s a stunning, memorable and totally appalling scene in the Food Bank, where I believe, Ken Loach just told her to act in the way she thought Katie would act under those circumstances. It was at that point that Mrs Chrisparkle started to sob, and she basically didn’t stop until we’d started our post-movie drinks in the bar opposite. There’s also a remarkably mature and moving performance by Briana Shann as Katie’s daughter Daisy; you can already see how easy it is at that young age for a child to become their parent’s carer. She’ll bring a gulp to your throat at least once during the film, I can guarantee you that.
This is one of those films where the audience bears witness to the experiences of people less fortunate than themselves. To look away in their time of need would be for us to shun our own civic and democratic responsibilities. The man to our left peppered the film by frequently muttering “Bastards!” every time Daniel was thwarted. The situation presented is a living nightmare, and something must be done to put an end to it. This was one of those rare occasions when the cinema audience broke into spontaneous applause during the final credits. Many people left clutching tissues. Don’t go away with the thought that this is only a film for left-wingers to appreciate; I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t touch the hearts of everyone somehow or other. The late Kenneth Tynan once famously said that he couldn’t love anyone who didn’t love Look Back in Anger. I rather think I might feel the same way about this film.