I, Daniel Blake *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ken Loach.
Written by: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Dave Johns (Daniel), Hayley Squires (Katie), Briana Shann (Daisy), Dylan McKiernan (Dylan), Kate Rutter (Ann), Sharon Percy (Sheila), Kema Sikazwe (China), Steven Richens (Piper), Dan Li (Stan Li), John Sumner (CV Instructor), Dave Turner (Harry Edwards), Micky McGregor (Ivan).
From the beginning of I, Daniel Blake, there is no doubt who the director is. This is Ken Loach’s second film to win the Palme D’or – after 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley – and it falls neatly in line with the other films the 80 year old Loach has made over his 50 year career. The Leftist directors career has always been as messaged based as anything else, which has resulted in a career that has produced some truly great films, and others than feel like halfhearted sermons standing up for the little guy. When Loach marries his style with the right story, the results can be great – although too often over the past 20 years or, the message gets in the way. Luckily, for the most part I Daniel Blake is one of the Loach films that doesn’t overwhelm its narrative with its messaged, even if the message is front and center from beginning to end. The film goes overboard in the final act (no more so than in the final scene), but by then, Loach has earned his sermonizing I guess, by delivering a thoughtful, emotionally wrenching film.
The story follows the title character, played by Dave Johns, who is a 59 year old construction worker and widower, recovering from a heart attack. His doctor has told him he isn’t well enough to return to work yet, and to do his exercises, but to basically rest up and get well – he’ll get back soon enough. But Blake has trouble navigating the byzantine, Kafka-esque government bureaucracy to get his benefits. He’s supposed to be on disability, but someone known as the “Decider” has decided he doesn’t qualify anymore. He can appeal, but that takes time – and until then he has no benefits. He can apply for regular unemployment – but in order to qualify for that, he has to be actively looking for a job, and be able to prove it. Adding insult to injury, he’s supposed to do all of this online, but he doesn’t own a computer, and has no idea how to use one. One day at the government office, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mom new in town. She was “relocated” when her landlord threw her out for complaining about a leak that made her son ill. Now, she’s in an area where she knows no one, has no support, no job – and two kids to feed. She was late for her appointment because she just arrived in town, and got lost. Both Daniel and Katie end up getting thrown out of the office that day, but have to keep coming back to try and survive.
The first hour or so of I, Daniel Blake has a neo-realist feel to, and Loach follows Blake and/or Katie through their increasingly desperate day-to-day lives, as they become frustrated, or try and do what they are told to keep receiving their benefits. Even when Daniel does find a helpful work at the assistance office, he ends up getting her in trouble as she helps him fill out his forms, which she isn’t supposed to do. Meanwhile, he has to apply for jobs he doesn’t want, and cannot accept, because he needs to show he’s trying. And Katie is becoming increasingly desperate and poor. There is no romantic relationship between them – Loach isn’t that hackneyed – but a genuine friendship where they help each other other. The performances by Johns, and especially newcomer Squires, really are quite extraordinary in the way they inhabit these normal people, without ever condensing to them or the audience.
The movie does lose its way in the third act a little bit, as it starts to lay everything on very thick during the last 40 minutes or so., I’m a little tired of every attractive, younger woman with money problems becoming a prostitute right out of the gate at this point, and the finale – including a speech by Squires that she saves from being embarrassing – is way too on-the-nose to be effective.
Yet, the message of I, Daniel Blake is an important one, and for the most part, it is delivered in an effective way by Loach and company. The movie could have – and should have – trusted the audience a little bit more to get the message of the movie (even in the first act, it’s not very subtle – we certainly didn’t need to get beat over the head with it). Still, flaws and all, I, Daniel Blake is a fine film – Loach’s best in a decade – and a story that really does hit hard.
Note: There was quite a bit of controversy at Cannes a year ago when the film won the Palme D’or, despite generally mixed critical reviews, while a film as praised as Toni Erdman went home empty handed. Like Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan – which won a couple of years ago, I do think that giving I, Daniel Blake the Palme considering the competition (not just Toni Erdman but Paterson, Personal Shopper, American Honey, The Handmaiden and Elle – and those are just the ones I’ve seen and loved) is silly, but hardly reflects on the film itself – which is strong, just not a masterpiece. I fear that, like what happens at the Oscars when a good film beats a great film for Best Picture, all of a sudden the good film seems worse than it actually is.