I, Daniel Blake (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Review published December 30, 2016
Daniel Blake (Johns, "Harry Hill") is a 59-year-old resident of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, forced into early retirement after suffering a severe heart attack that renders him unable to continue his work as a carpenter. Not skilled in the slightest with the use of computers, Daniel has a challenging time trying to apply for unemployment relief in the Department for Work and Pensions that is "digital by default" (Blake counters that he is, "pencil by default".) In addition, the DWP won't grant him a sickness benefit right away, forcing him to look for work 35 hours a week for a job he can't take in order to keep his jobseekers allowance coming. He makes fast friends after coming to the defense of Katie (Squires, A Royal Night Out), a single, 20-something mother of two who has recently relocated from London because of lack of adequate housing for those in need.
Coming out of a momentary retirement to direct again comes 80-year-old auteur for working-class stories, Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Angels Share), who regularly draws upon themes about the exploitation and indignity within British society for the unemployed and financially struggling among them. The poor and struggling working class are spotlighted for their beneficial nature to the culture, who are good people with strong values that are largely absent from the soulless rhetoric often spouted by the media and politicians who regularly scapegoat them.
In I Daniel Blake, Loach continues his habit of trying to cast mostly non-professional actors, in addition to professional actors who aren't particularly recognizable. The presumption is that people who are unknown to us will be more believable to us than those we've seen perform in a variety of roles, i.e., we will be more apt to presume they are normal, everyday people. As such, Daniel Blake is portrayed by stand-up comedian Dave Johns, working here in his very first feature film. Meanwhile, the only sizeable supporting role goes to relative newcomer Hayley Squires, an actress and playwright with a short resume, but quite excellent in drawing needed sympathy for her character.
To achieve further realism, Loach also likes to shoot his films in sequence, while also not showing or telling the actors the direction the film or their characters will go until the time comes when they need to know, and some of the actors within certain scenes are completely unaware of what Loach may have instructed others to do around then. So, when something surprising does happen, the reaction of the others in front of the camera will feel authentic and unrehearsed, just as it would in real life, with Loach's encouragement to improvise above frequent collaborator Paul Laverty's script, also channeling new and believable directions for the characters to pursue.
I Daniel Blake would get a critical jump start by winning the Palme d'Or at 2016's Cannes, marking the second time that Loach has taken home that honor, after The Wind That Shakes the Barley. He has created another poignant, sometimes comically absurd or farcical, and completely heartbreaking story of people seeking assistance but finding themselves having to be persistently humiliated by the system that has them jumping through a never-ending array of hurdles that obstruct their ability to right their own ship.
While the problems in the film are British, the same holds for nearly every country that has implemented a welfare system, making it of appeal to many other cultures around the world, where the vulnerable feel shunned and who find their self-image shattered by a process that doesn't help enough for the amount of effort they must perform to keep up their much-needed allowances, in addition to avoiding harsh punitive damages for not conforming to the letter, resulting in becoming open to criminal activities to make ends meet. Without overt preaching or clichés, Loach continues to show why he's still a director at the top of his game, once again championing the downtrodden who don't get much sympathetic representation in a society that continues to wish to sweep them under the rug composed of oodles of red tape.
©2016 Vince Leo