I, Daniel Blake

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I, Daniel Blake  (2016)    Sundance Selects/Drama    RT: 100 minutes    Rated R (language)    Director: Ken Loach    Screenplay: Paul Laverty    Music: George Fenton    Cinematography: Robbie Ryan    Release date: June 2, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan, Kema Sikazwe, Steven Richens, Kate Rutter, Gavin Webster, Micky McGregor, Stephen Clegg.

 

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 Nobody will ever accuse Ken Loach of being overly cheerful or optimistic. His films tend to be very depressing and downbeat. Take his latest I, Daniel Blake, a drama in which a man trying to collect disability benefits is constantly frustrated by an uncaring, unsympathetic system that’s more concerned with following procedure than actually helping those who need it. In the film’s opening scene, the protagonist of the title, played by comedian Dave Johns in his first big screen role, is asked a series of circular questions by a government-employed health care provider that have nothing to do with his particular ailment. He suffered a heart attack on the job (he’s in construction) and has yet to receive the okay to return to work by his personal physician. Blake can hardly believe he’s being asked such ridiculous, irrelevant questions by this clueless individual but it’s all part of the process so he must answer them if he wishes to continue receiving benefits.

 daniel-blakeOkay, so Blake’s doctor has determined he’s still unable to return to work. The work capability assessment he undergoes determines that he is fit to go back to work and his benefits are discontinued. It’s his right to appeal the decision but those in power have made it extremely difficult. He goes to the benefits office only to be told that he must apply for an appeal on-line. Blake is 59 and has never even touched a computer before but that doesn’t matter to the jerk who could just as easily hand him a form but doesn’t because it’s against procedure. While there, he encounters Katie (Squires, A Royal Night Out), a young single mother of two children who has just moved to Newcastle because there is no affordable housing in London. Because she arrives a few minutes late for her appointment, she is sanctioned and refused welfare. When she tries to explain, security is called to remove her from the building. When Blake sticks up for her, he too is ejected.

 A friendship develops between Blake and Katie as he makes several repairs in her apartment and shows her how to heat the place for free. Meanwhile, he goes through the humiliating process of looking for a job even though he’s unable to accept any offer of employment. He also has to attend a seminar about how to get a job despite being a productive member of society for 40 years. He does all this so he can receive a jobseeker’s allowance. All the while, he waits and waits to be notified of his appeal date. Like everything else that involves the system, it moves slowly.

 I, Daniel Blake is relentlessly depressing and difficult to watch at times. In one scene, Katie has a hunger-induced breakdown at a food bank. She can’t afford to feed herself AND her children so she often goes hungry so her kids don’t. Katie sinks pretty low, resorting to shoplifting and prostitution just to get by. I, Daniel Blake is definitely NOT a feel-good movie. It is a very good one however. Once again, Loach gives viewers a realistic depiction of the British working class. It’s what’s known as kitchen sink realism. He uses personal drama to shine a light of one of society’s greatest ails, the ineffectiveness and callousness of the welfare system. In the hands of an American filmmaker, Daniel Blake would start some grand movement and become a national hero. Loach stays more grounded and has his protagonist commit a small act of civil disobedience that earns him applause from passers-by and a warning from police not to do it again.

 The acting in I, Daniel Blake is very good. I never would have guessed Johns is a stand-up comic. It’s hard to believe this is his first acting gig ever. The man is a natural. He convincingly portrays a working class Everyman beaten down an unsympathetic system. As I watched him, I thought about the late Bob Hoskins. Johns kind of reminds me of him. I could easily see a middle-aged Hoskins playing Daniel Blake in the 90s. Squires is also terrific as Katie, the young single mom who longs to resume her college education which was cut short by her first pregnancy. This is a smart, decent woman who deserves better than the dire circumstances she’s currently in. She finds solace in her platonic friendship with Blake.

 Some have complained that I, Daniel Blake is one-sided with its depiction of the welfare and Jobcentre bureaucrats as unfeeling monsters out to screw everybody. I’m willing to concede that not all of them are terrible people, I’m sure there are a few well-intentioned staff members who want to help people. Unfortunately, the system is a big machine that rarely if ever considers each person’s individual circumstances. It’s pretty much the same here in the US so the Brits aren’t alone in their frustrations and aggravation. Therefore, it’s easy to see what Loach is getting at and sympathize with Blake and Katie as they navigate an unnecessarily complex, unfeeling system. I, Daniel Blake may not be typical summer fare but it’s a film well worth seeing. It will probably make you angry but isn’t eliciting a strong emotional response the sign of an effective film? That’s an emphatic YES! 

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