Film Review: I, Daniel Blake

A scalding, perfectly wrought film about a man’s struggle to assert his dignity in a bureaucratic system that’s rigged to destroy it.
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I, Daniel Blake, with its affirmation of human dignity, speaks to the economic moment with poignant accuracy and could scarcely be timelier. Crowned by this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes, it adds yet another searing work to the ongoing project of Ken Loach (who’s 80 and threatened to retire from filmmaking after the 2014 Jimmy’s Hall). Daniel Blake puts front and center Loach’s core-deep empathy for working-class people and celebrates their innate goodness. Don’t look for goodness in a Loach film, or even a caper-size bit of decency, from the ruling class, overlords, corporate titans and—in the case of Daniel Blake—the grotesquely titled welfare system. That system’s bureaucracy is here depicted as a malevolent cat’s cradle of catch-22s, designed to frustrate, disorient and crush society’s powerless—a depiction with echoes of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Kafka and the Dardenne Brothers.

Thankfully, Loach leavens Daniel Blake (which opened just before Christmas) with humor and feel-good human warmth, and the film should resonate with anyone who’s been put on indeterminate hold by a government agency or corporate behemoth to the strains of Vivaldi’s Greatest Hits.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widowed carpenter from Newcastle, who has recently suffered a heart attack, and is struggling to hang on to his welfare benefits. He’s been receiving an Employment and Support Allowance from the British state—then, for no apparent reason, his benefits are whisked away, and the state insists he return to work even though his doctor has forbidden it. Daniel is ordered to attend a CV workshop, an exercise in gallows humor when it’s revealed there are few jobs. The film follows Daniel through additional crazy-making encounters with bureaucratic trolls—chief among them an elusive entity sinisterly named the Decision Maker—to draw the modest stipend that stands, literally, between him and the streets. A giant obstacle for Blake proves to be his lack of computer literacy, at a time when the world has moved online.

During interminable waits at the welfare labyrinth, Blake witnesses Katie, a young mother of two (lovely Hayley Squires) being denied her turn with an agent for arriving a few minutes late—new to the area, she took the wrong bus—and getting hassled by security guards. “All she needs is help,” Daniel objects. He and Katie fall in together, two unfortunates in need of mutual solace. Daniel provides both emotional support—“I need you to keep going for me,” he tells Katie—and carpentry skills to make her glacial flat more habitable.

Though Daniel’s been through the wringer and looks older than his 60 years, Johns, with his mischievous charm, makes him a joy to watch; his grizzled, sunny face acts almost as an antidote to the trials he endures. Squires, with her great dark eyes, is hugely sympathetic as a woman who literally starves herself in order to feed her kids and buy them school clothes. In one knockout scene at the food pantry, Katie’s driven by hunger to rip off the top of a can of beans. In another highlight, Daniel asserts his right to exist by scrawling his name on walls to the cheers of onlookers—“It’s an art installation,” he tells the cops. At the center of the film is the circle of warmth formed by the tenderness of Daniel and Katie’s makeshift family. A young African next door offers Daniel a roughshod camaraderie and adds a flicker of hope, with his entrepreneurial dreams of growing a business by reselling Chinese-made sneakers for a profit.

True to form, Loach takes a quasi-sympathetic approach to Daniel’s and Katie’s oppressors in the welfare mart. These heartless officials are not so much villains as pawns programmed to do the government’s bidding if they themselves are to survive. Their occasional gentleness lends the film an extra layer of sadness. The screenplay by Loach regular Paul Laverty is masterful, with not a wasted moment, and moves with the grinding inexorability of a Greek tragedy. Daniel Blake is immaculate, perfect, that rare political drama that packs emotional dynamite. At film’s end, you’ll cry, you’ll applaud, you’ll come away heartened and ennobled.

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