Film Review: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

About six or seven years ago, I developed a minor obsession with the work of Ken Loach, the iconoclastic English director of acclaimed films like Kes, Looks and Smiles, Raining Stones, My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Back then, I watched a number of these in quick succession. I was blown away by Loach’s stark depiction of class and economics (themes almost entirely absent from American films), his willingness to forgo using big name stars and his proclivity for shooting his stories with bleak, unsentimental naturalism.

Despite the powerful mark Loach’s output left on me, for the past couple of years, he has largely been off my radar. This changed when I heard about one of his most recent films, the 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake. The film tells the story of Daniel Blake (powerfully played by Dave Johns), a widower and joiner from Newcastle who has recently had a heart attack and is being denied employment and support allowance despite being deemed unfit for work by his doctor. As he attempts to navigate the Kafkaesque nature of the state benefits system, Blake also meets and befriends Katie (a heart-breaking Haley Squires), a struggling single mother who is teetering on the edge of abject poverty.

Loach’s veteran skill as a filmmaker allows him to easily get the emotional and thematic contours of the story up and running. When we first meet Daniel, he is caught in a state of deranged limbo, being forced to look for jobs to keep some form of governmental assistance but also incapable of accepting them due to his shaky physical condition. Through dialogue, set design and cinematography, Loach establishes the claustrophobia, gloom and rigidity of Newcastle society in the 2010s. The director and cinematographer Robbie Ryan often frame characters like Daniel and Katie as being boxed in by the grim, grey and muddy-colored structures of their environment, and the skies above also appear to be in a state of perpetual overcast. The design of the public assistance office (the location of much of the film’s conflict) also contributes to the film’s overall worldview, with its harsh lines and rows of fixed desks suggesting a brutish sense of powerful inflexibility.

The film’s script – written by Loach’s frequent collaborator Paul Laverty – perfectly compliments how the film’s visuals create a damning portrait of the English welfare state. Laverty pens insane sequences of dialogue featuring Daniel clashing with the public assistance workers over the phone, the tense conversations devolving into surreal, circuitous loops that leave Daniel seething with rage and indignation. Laverty’s script achieves a rare tonal quality with these scenes, evoking dark pessimism and pitch black humor simultaneously.

As in nearly all Loach films, the acting in I, Daniel Blake is strong, with everyone from the main characters to the bit parts coming off as deeply authentic. As the two leads, Dave Johns and Haley Squires are, frankly, amazing, exuding agonizing levels of humanity, vulnerability and – finally – indomitable spirit. Johns and Squires also never shy away from their characters’ more prickly and unsavory aspects, a fact that creates two three-dimensional characters at the heart of the story.

As I’ve noted in previous paragraphs, I, Daniel Blake can perhaps be somewhat defined by how well certain elements – such as its writing and acting – strike a certain type of balance. A similar compliment can be paid to the film’s overall outlook and worldview. Make no mistake, I, Daniel Blake is a brutal, raging indictment of British society, and one that is often difficult to sit through. And yet, for all of its stark, unrelenting protestations, I would argue that the film also maintains a small, fragile sense of optimism. This is particularly apparent in how the film seems to have far more faith in the decency of individual people than institutions. Goodness abounds throughout I, Daniel Blake, but it is found more frequently in the form of next-door neighbors or helpful strangers at the library than in the forms and processes of something like the public assistance office.

In many respects, I, Daniel Blake appealed to me because of how it evoked memories of one of my favorite films, the absolutely devastating Umberto D., directed by Vittorio De Sica. Both films feature the harrowing journeys of older men who are contending with a hostile or apathetic state system that has largely abandoned them. In terms of sheer emotional power, I would have to say that De Sica’s shattering film probably eclipses Loach’s to some extent. I mean, how could it not when its protagonists are a poor old man and an absolutely adorable dog named Flike? But Loach’s is arguably the more complex and comprehensive work, providing a multi-faceted look at how characters like Daniel and Katie are being chewed up by forces beyond their control or even their understanding, such as governmental bureaucracy, globalized capitalism and the rise of digital technology.

In scene after scene, Loach establishes this narrative complexity, utilizing all available characters in order to enhance his film’s narrative scope and its Topsy-turvey world. Daniel’s affable if somewhat irresponsible neighbor China (played with great warmth and charisma by Kema Sikazwe), for instance, finds a way to supplement the paltry wages of his day job by importing shoes directly from China at cost and then selling them for an outrageous profit. Additionally, Daniel is an enormously capable artisan and handyman, gifted with the ability to produce objects of real, tangible use. And yet, even with such an array of valuable skills, he is shown to be completely out of his depth and essentially helpless in navigating a world that is rapidly becoming digitized.

With I, Daniel Blake being fueled largely by such a brutally sober outlook, one can’t help but feel somewhat letdown by its ending. The film’s final scene features a character standing up and literally verbalizing its entire social or political message. And while I was sympathetic to the themes being discussed during this speech, it felt largely ineffective and frankly unnecessary. Prior to this moment, I, Daniel Blake has already shown us – with intelligence, wit and punishing gravity – the dehumanizing and destructive forces at work in our modern capitalist system. We don’t need an additional lecture to understand their impact. Through Loach’s artistry and the film’s performances, the searing trials of characters like Daniel and Katie feel real and immediate, as do the human connections they foster that allow them to ultimately persevere.

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