I, Daniel Blake
I, DANIEL BLAKE, drama, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Ken Loach, the legendary British director with a socialist-inflected body of work stretching back more than half a century (his 1969 Kes isa working-class classic), is still taking up arms against a sea of troubles and standing up for the common man. With I, Daniel Blake, he’s landed another blow to the body impolitic, and in the process picked up last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Daniel Blake (veteran stand-up comic Dave Johns) is a sixtyish Newcastle carpenter who has suffered a heart attack. The film begins with a litany of inane questions being put to him by a government “health-care professional” over a black screen on which the opening credits roll. Daniel’s doctor tells him he can’t return to work for a while. The bureaucracy says he’s fit for employment and denies him benefits. His baffled helplessness is compounded by the fact that Daniel is a stranger to the world of computers that has taken over the system. There are no paper forms to fill out and submit for appeal. You have to do that online.
Loach can be a little heavy-handed in his depiction of the human cogs in the bureaucratic windmills against which Daniel tilts, but not so much that you won’t nod your head with sympathetic recognition. This story becomes one in which ordinary people have to help one another, because in post-Thatcher Britain, the state is not designed to meet the needs of the little guy.
Daniel, a widower, befriends a young mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is being similarly stonewalled by the system. He lends his workman’s skills to fix up her slum flat, and helps her try to navigate the labyrinthine halls of welfare. Other people at the same subsistence level, neighbors and strangers, do what they can to help.
Loach takes us through a series of mostly understated scenes that evoke the helplessness and frustrations of people desperate to do an honest day’s work to provide for themselves and their loved ones. He builds to a scene involving a spray-painted manifesto that gives the film its title, a moment to which he brings almost too much restraint. But it’s his sympathetic understanding of his characters, and their beautifully honest evocation by his actors, that give this little movie a big wallop. — Jonathan Richards
Makeshift family: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, and Briana Shann