I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty

The Cannes Film Festival is perhaps at once the most famous, prestigious and pretentious film festival in the world. Each year you hear of crowds booing movies that turn out to be great. You hear of the next great film from a notable filmmaker, awards contenders long before they are available to the public. Each year, the Cannes Film Festival awards its top prize, the Palme d’Or, to the best film from the festival, as voted on by its handpicked jury. The choices are often controversial, with many films presumably overlooked for a film that wasn’t nearly as popular or well received. And yet, the Palme d’Or still carried with it a great deal of prestige, a great deal of weight, and many times the Palme d’Or winner is a phenomenal film among the best of the year. This year, noted filmmaker Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, won the top prize, and soon it will grace a screen near you, months after winning the award.

After suffering a heart attack while on the job as a carpenter, widower Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) begins the arduous process of applying for financial aid from the government while he is unable to work. The process is much harder than he can imagine as he runs into road block after road block among the bureaucratic jungle. While his doctor tells him he is unfit to return to work, the government’s “healthcare specialist” declares him fit, therefore threatening his only means of income, state provided compensation. Along the way, he encounters a struggling single mom, Katie (Hayley Squires), who has just moved up to Newcastle from London and is having a hard time providing for her two children. Dan helps her with the kids and around the house, as the two strike up a friendship to help cope with their difficult situations.

Admittedly, Ken Loach is a filmmaker whose work I need to explore at greater depths, but my lone experience with his work, The Angel’s Share, showed a sympathetic and socially conscious voice. The same touch can be seen here with I, Daniel Blake. As we join Dan and Katie along their frustrating journeys, we get a wonderful look into the inefficiencies and issues that permeate throughout the bureaucratic government. At every turn common sense and decency seem to be ignored. Meanwhile, all Dan knows is common sense and decency, making him an easy character to like and root for. His relationship with Katie is what makes the movie tick, and Loach infuses it with such humanity and authenticity. Katie meanwhile is in a far worse place than Dan, and requires his kindness to make it through anyday. I can feel her pain through Hayley Squires’ performance.

For these reasons, I can see why the film was as highly regarded as it was, even if it was still a surprise winner at Cannes. However, for all the heart and decency with which Loach fills his film, the screenplay lets down Loach by painting these characters with some of the most stock problems and character traits. It manages to check all the boxes you might expect from a film on this subject, which makes for a frustrating experience. I, Daniel Blake shows such tremendous potential, but follows the most well-trodden course imaginable, making it little more average. For every genuine heartbreaking moment, there is another predictable beat around the corner. I still believe in Loach and his ability to express humanity, but this film is not his best.

Screenwriter Paul Laverty has actually collaborated with Loach before and to great effect with such films as the celebrated The Wind That Shakes the Barley and the aforementioned The Angels’s Share. It’s disappointing then to find I, Daniel Blake lacking in imagination. But for every generic plot point, there is also Loach’s delicate touch, making it a film with enough moments to satiate, while also being just bland enough to be forgettable. The film speaks to some of the underlying problems in government, especially as they pertain to serving the taxpayers and providing a valuable and courteous service. There are often too many chutes and ladder to navigate to get to where you need to go, with common decency and common sense often ignored in favor of “procedure”. I, Daniel Blake makes a strong argument for the good in people with its lead character, while also pointing out society’s greatest deficiencies. Ultimately it ends up being a bit of a mixed bag.

*** – Good

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