European cinema – Austerity measures in modern Britain

I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach (2016)

So the journey begins right here in the UK. Is this cheating? I’m pretty sure this is cheating, but I  saw this film the other week and couldn’t not talk about it, and besides, Newcastle is far enough from me to be a foreign language film, strong enough accents that I could have used a subtitle or two in places (never mind my boyfriend whose first language isn’t English and needed me to repeat a lot of it).

I was familiar with Ken Loach’s work, and having studied his 2002 film ‘Sweet Sixteen‘ during my A-Levels, I was aware of his ability to perfectly demonstrate just how brutal British society can be. I’d followed the film’s progress, and since the release of the first trailer eagerly awaited its release. I read reviews, watched interviews, I knew the core of the film’s message and I knew it would be brutal, but none of this prepared me for the film itself.

The film tells the story of Katie and her two children from London who, after living in a homeless shelter for two years, is finally given a house by the council, 247 miles away in Newcastle. She doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t have any money and is sanctioned by the Job Centre for getting lost in a new city and being late to her appointment. The unlikely hero comes in the form of widowed 59 year old Daniel Blake, who has recently had a heart attack rendering him unfit for work, sending him to a job centre after working all of his life. The two become companions, Blake lending Katie money when she is in dire need of water or heat, a charming relationship blossoms. Following their stories reveals the difficulty of living on a job seekers allowance, a cold, lonely and desperate time for many that is often reduced to ‘scrounging’ by those in the country fortunate enough to have never experienced it. I sort of lost count of how many times my eyes filled up during the film, but I’ll probably never forget the foodbank scene. One of the greatest triumphs of this film are its stunning and heartbreaking performances, specifically by Hayley Squires who had me weeping in parts. And Dave Johns performance highlighting the very real technology divide as he struggles to keep up with a world in which “you can apply online” and online only. I do wonder how many people, from all over the world watch Love Actually every year and think that is an accurate representation of Britain. Stories like Daniel’s and Katie’s are happening all over this country, people are sleeping rough each night on our streets and an estimated 3.7 million children live in poverty.

A key reason I will never forget watching this film in the Colchester Odeon was seeing my boyfriend of over a year cry for the very first time. Afterwards he told me the film scared him. Having come to the UK with more-or-less nothing I guess it was too close to home. If he were to lose his job, with none of his family being able to support him, he’d fall into this system that is so void of empathy, and that is a terrifying thought. For me, I, Daniel Blake tells me more about my country than the news ever has. You don’t have to look far to see things we’re lectured about in my sociology degree at University, but feel like some far removed thing. Inequality, poverty, welfare, bureaucracy (very evident within the back-and-forth of the Job Centre scenes), they’re all there. That’s what the UK is like today for those going without. So next time your Tory grandparents try to argue with you as to why austerity is going to benefit everyone in the long run, put on this film and show them what it is doing to people today.

Sidenote: I’ve heard about people clapping at the end of films in cinemas but this was the first time I experienced it. There also wasn’t a dry eye in the house. (Be warned).

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