MOVIE REVIEW: I, Daniel Blake


52nd Chicago International Film Festival special presentation


Ken Loach is more than an esteemed British filmmaker.  He is also an ardent social activist for the middle-class commoner.  His camera is kind to the working class and never afraid to ruffle political feathers.  His latest film, I, Daniel Blake, the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, champions the cause to combat the bureaucracy of the welfare system, a topic not exclusive whatsoever to the United Kingdom.  Loach’s plain-speaking film is a touchingly realistic parable.

Standup comedian Dave Johns steps into drama as the title character.  He’s a pleasantly impatient 59-year-old man who recently suffered a heart attack at work.  Illiterate when it comes to all things computers, Daniel Blake finds himself lost among many fellow bourgeois citizens cast to waiting rooms and buried by red tape-filled paperwork.  Dependent on his job and pension to make ends meet, Daniel seeks to return to work.  A work capability assessment overrules his doctor’s recommendation, but he is denied crucial employment and support allowances.

Through his government hurdles, Daniel meets and befriends Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a young single mother of two, after standing up for her not receiving customer service at a job center.  Katie and her children have bounced around homeless hostels, but now are trying to make do with a squalid apartment.  Daniel uses his handyman and carpenter skills to help Katie fix the place up.  All the while, both Katie and Daniel battle bouts of desperation and exasperation in search of steady jobs to make their own ends meet.

I, Daniel Blake is unabashedly a “bleeding heart” film on literal and figurative levels.  If this was a Hollywood film, it would be overrun with shouted speeches and orchestrational swells trying to manufacture emotional peaks.  Fluff like that is unnecessary if you have the right poetic realism,  For Loach, that’s second hand and he picks the right soapbox placement and thickness.  Philomena cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s observational distance combines with intimate close-ups and  slow fades.  Ryan’s tone immerses us in the cold presence of this unfortunate lifestyle presented by Loach.

Better yet, Loach’s realism is backed by boundless heart that can squeeze tears from even the stoutest viewer.  Through affecting domestic drama composed with raw minimalism, I, Daniel Blake has a poignancy to match its frankness padded with humor.  Dave Johns and Hayley Squires give compassionate and tender performances of two people who recognize the value in helping their fellow man.  You cannot take your eyes off of their ranges of fragility and pride.  Through their warmth, the fires of external outrage directed at the system can grow in an organic way, finishing the goal of Loach’s cinematic statement.   

LESSON #1: COMPUTER LITERACY AMONG BABY BOOMERS AND SENIORS REMAINS A PROBLEM-- Most folks under the age of 60 have become used to the challenges and necessities of technology.  We’ve grown up with some form of computers at school or the workplace.  There are several generations that never did and asking them to pick up a mouse or touchscreen device to navigate online sites and forms can be like giving chopsticks to a man with no hands.  Extra time, assistance, and, most of all, patience should be granted to those unschooled. 

LESSON #2: THE WELFARE CARE SYSTEM CAN BE DEHUMANIZING TO SAY THE LEAST-- People dread going to government offices for reasons greater than bedside manner and customer service.  The marginalization that arises comes from systemic over-complication and wasteful bureaucracy.  A system that is supposed to be in place to help can become impersonal to the point of treating people like statistics instead of honest human beings.  Changes are needed to repair self-respect and decency.

LESSON #3: EVERYONE NEEDS TO LISTEN MORE TO THE NEEDS OF OTHERS-- The big question becomes how does one fix the problems that span across Lesson #1 and Lesson #2.  The answer begins with active listening.  We watch official after official talk around people’s problems in I, Daniel Blake.  Being heard is the first step of help.  If agendas can be removed after that, actions can begin to push that help even further.