Quietly dismissing rumblings about “Jimmy’s Hall” being his final film, “I, Daniel Blake” sees Ken Loach in especially endearing form. His latest breaks away from recent films like ‘Hall’ and “The Angel’s Share” in how easily relatable it is, which is all the more striking when you consider that all three films were penned by Paul Laverty (who, incidentally, also scripted Loach’s Palme d’Or winner, “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”). No knowledge of specific cultural tendencies will connect you to ‘Blake’ any more or less – its impression lives and dies in the sensitive balance found when story blooms from the personal to the universal. In the case of ‘Daniel Blake,’ you don’t have to be a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle to understand how much bureaucracy sucks. The inane rigmarole of catch-22’s, constantly getting referred to another department when all you need is a simple answer, filling in forms until you can’t look at another little box again; Loach and Laverty use this common nuisance to their advantage, and it works just fine. Helped along by an unvarnished Dave Johns in the title role, “I, Daniel Blake” becomes an entertaining, straight-laced tale with small doses of everything – laughter, tears, emotion, cuteness, triumph and, above all else, kindness.
The film opens with Blake talking to a health-care professional (not a doctor, not a nurse) over a black screen, answering questions about his fine motor skills even though the reason he’s there is because he had a heart attack. “We’re getting further and further away from my heart,” he tells her (in the film’s first of many spirited zingers) and we feel his frustration without even needing to see him. His doctors and physios have deemed him unfit for work, so he’s in the process of applying for Employment and Support Allowance – benefits paid to people who cannot work due to disability. But the State turns around and routinely ignores all of that, saying that he is actually fit for work. While he waits until he can properly appeal this absurd decision, his file gets bounced around “decision-makers” and all circles of communication hell, forcing Daniel to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance. As a widower with no children, Daniel has no one to help him; a crucial part of the central conflict where one of the film’s great accomplishments lies. How absolutely terrifying it is to be old, ailing and alone.
During one of his appointments, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires) – a single mother who just moved from London with two young kids – who also feels the blunt end of idiotic rhetoric and rules at the employment offices. With no one around to help either of them, the two become quick friends and end up as each other’s moral support. As Daniel tries to get his head around the various letters, phone calls and appointments he’s got to keep up with (not to mention dealing with computers when the man doesn’t even how a mouse works), Katie looks for work as a cleaner and tries to keep her spirits up for her two young ones. Things get really tough for both of them at one point, and a visit to the food bank sees Katie unraveling and breaking down. It ends up being the most remarkable and stirring scene in the whole film, and the first time Squires threatens to steal the whole show from Johns (it won’t be the last).
As ever with Ken Loach, “I, Daniel Blake” is a flat-line experience in terms of cinematic allure. There’s zero flashiness, it wears its heart dutifully on its sleeve, and Laverty’s eager script doesn’t allow us to turn over any stones ourselves. It doesn’t purport to be as inventive, complex, or philosophically deep as other bureaucratic-nightmare movies like “Brazil,” “The Double” or even something like the ‘Little Bomb’ segment from “Wild Tales.” It is, quite succinctly, what it is and nothing more. In this way it’s much like its titular character: a typical blue-collar worker who is a simple, proud, stubborn and righteous man. Johns – a stand-up comic by trade – makes Daniel instantly amiable thanks to the sharp wit that keeps him young. His half-smirk makes up a quasi-inquisitive expression that’s wrinkled with experience, bringing out the everyman qualities in Daniel and making the performance a key to the film’s universal appeal. He’s so likeable by default, in fact, that you easily forgive and forget those moments of highest drama when he’s not very convincing.
The biggest lesson to take away from “I, Daniel Blake” is how a movie doesn’t have to be psychologically complex or cinematically dazzling to dig beyond its surface. It’s rudimentary in terms of technique, but how the film generates its power is through the themes of humanity and kindness at its center. Before the lights dimmed, I was mostly curious to find out why the title insisted on the ‘I’ — you’d think that ‘Daniel Blake’ would suffice after just reading the synopsis. Once it ends, though, you come to realize that the film is all about the ‘I’ — that’s what emphasizes its personal and human touch, and doesn’t simplify it into a story about some bloke called Daniel Blake. As a declaration against governmental structures and regimes that pretend to be helpful but are purposefully geared for the opposite, Loach’s is a touching film that doesn’t quite stir you with its anger but — thanks to solid performances and an unpretentious narrative — keeps you interested till the end. [B]