Ken Loach’s latest film which won him his second Palme d’Or is a troubling and devastating look at the current state of poverty in England. The film opens with the titular character, a 59 year old carpenter from Newcastle with a heart condition, being questioned by a “qualified” health professional to see if he qualifies for employee benefits since he is unfit to continue his regular job. These questions pertain to everything but his heart condition, like if he is able to walk 50 meters and if he can raise his hand to put on a hat. These maddening questions lead to the witty Daniel making funny remarks and questioning the qualifications of the healthcare professional; he receives a 12 score instead of the required 15 and is deemed ineligible for benefits. While he tries to appeal this decision, the only form of benefit he can receive is through the job seeker’s allowance which means he has to attend CV workshops and apply to jobs he can’t accept. He has to prove that he has been actively looking for work which becomes problematic when he has never had to use a computer in his life; he says “I’m pencil by default” in response to the manager at the benefits office saying that they’ve gone digital by default. Seeing him struggle to fill out online forms is torture in itself but the absolute ineffectiveness and uncooperative nature of the representatives on the phone or at the benefits office makes it easier for people like Daniel to be victims of bureaucracy.
Daniel befriends a single mother of two (Katie) who is also put in hardship after being forced to move to Newcastle from London for cheaper rent without a job. Humorous moments in the film are often outweighed by the heft of the characters’ circumstances. However, there is also a real sense of community and togetherness especially between Daniel and Katie and her kids or his neighbor that gives you the tiniest sense of hope. There is one effectively harrowing scene in a food bank that shook me to the core. The film really delves into what poverty in England looks like today and there is a real sense of urgency to it; I felt I was watching a documentary at times and the theater I saw this in was as quiet as space even through the end credits. This is probably the best film of the year by pure default because no other film will affect your sensibilities like this one does and top that off with an amazing cast with the lead actor who is a stand up comedian giving a “non-performance”, I refuse to believe he is anyone but Daniel Blake. (10/10)