I, Daniel Blake
2016, R, 100 min. Directed by Ken Loach. Starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan, Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe, Steven Richens.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 2, 2017
Ever feel like bureaucracies intentionally thwart people from obtaining the very services they were designed to provide? That being placed on hold for hours while listening to a maddening Muzak loop is meant to discourage questions and defeat even the most lionhearted? That volumes of forms and paperwork are mere minefields for mistakes and contradictions rather than shorthand for the distillation of complicated and individual life situations? If you can relate to such circumstances, I, Daniel Blake, winner of Cannes’ 2016 Palme d’Or, will speak to you.
For the iconoclastic film director Ken Loach and his longtime screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake represents their most accessible film ever. Gone are the dense British and Scottish accents that on occasion have required subtitles for the benefit of American ears, but even more important is that the filmmakers’ leftist politics take a backseat to the film’s humanistic vision. Shot in his familiar social-realist style, Loach gives us a story about two Briton souls who’ve become victims of the very social services that were meant to sustain them. It’s a story about bureaucracies and the failure of social safety nets, a tale all too recognizable among citizens in today’s most well-off countries.
The film tells the story of Daniel Blake (Johns), a woodworker in his late 50s who is on medical leave from his job due to a heart condition, and Katie Morgan (Squires), a mother of two who has been moved by a government agency from her moldy council flat in London to a shabby apartment in Newcastle. While frustratedly seeking government assistance until he is okayed by his doctor to return to work, Daniel observes Katie with her kids in tow, arguing with a social worker who has canceled their appointment because Katie arrived a couple of minutes late, due to being a newcomer in town and having taken the wrong bus. Daniel befriends Katie, and the film proceeds to detail their separate but connected plights. A comic by profession, Johns can be very amusing to watch as he’s forced to figure out how to use a computer for the first time, since he’s required to apply for jobs while waiting to appeal his denial of assistance (a total catch-22), yet he’s also unstintingly kind to Katie and her children. Katie, meanwhile, forgoes meals for herself and shoplifts sanitary napkins in order to find the means to feed and clothe her children. Their stories continue in pointed but poignant scenes as the stakes grow ever more critical. Emotionally involving and gut-wrenching throughout, Loach and Laverty unnecessarily overplay the pathos at the film’s conclusion. But I guarantee that the next time you’re on hold with a government agency, you’ll have visions in your head of Daniel and Katie dancing desperately to the Muzak. The loop never ends.