As he has been doing since he became an auteur of note in the late 1960s with docudrama shorts and the features Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969), Ken Loach continues to explore the precarious state of existence within the confines of social realism with I, Daniel Blake. To describe Loach as ‘confined’ to the same narrative parameters he’s outlined for himself, going on six decades now, may be cinematic sacrilege in some circles. Both the narrative scope and the eponymous character of his latest, however, extol a similar refrain to what we’ve seen countless times before—an unadorned, unsophisticated every-man railing against a broken, unjust system as he struggles in vain to overcome an impossible bureaucracy only capable of repeating a vicious cycle of indignity, exploiting the disenfranchised masses they’ve been created to help. More prescient than Loach could have possibly predicted, the film achieves its desired effect on an initial viewing, delivering its blunt straightforwardness with exacting, on-the-nose preciseness. However, in scribe Paul Laverty’s desperate attempt to avoid pretense, he also robs the film of depth and characterization, its figures merely emotionally superficial ciphers, their martyrdom enhanced by the film’s adamant miserbalism.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old carpenter recovering from a recent heart attack. Unable to return to work per physician instructions, he attempts to receive assistance from the state, an interview which takes place off screen as the credits roll. Assessed by a non-medical professional whose job it is to determine if he is eligible to return to work, Blake is denied Employment and Support Allowance and thus begins a grueling navigation of a time-consuming ordeal to obtain money from the state while he recuperates. Along the way, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires) a single mother of two also being victimized by a rigid system of endless rules and restrictions.
Loach’s potency has never been in question, and his specialty has always been capturing significant emotional discord, as he does here, especially with the performances he achieves from Dave Johns, a frustrating curmudgeon, and Hayley Squires as Katie, a composite of victimhood tinged tendencies. There are, without a doubt, a handful of sequences which are phenomenally staged, the foremost being a trip to the food shelter, where Squires, on the verge of passing out from hunger, rips open a soup can for sustenance, a primordial defense mechanism superseding the social appropriateness of such an action.
However, I, Daniel Blake also succeeds in proving how not to approach a system seemingly designed to thwart those in need rather than assist them. An aggravating sequence finds Daniel Blake attempting to navigate the internet in a public library. He’s so ignorant of technology, he can’t accomplish the simple task he’s been mandated, flagging down several strangers who ultimately assume he’s at least got the basics down. As he runs out of time for his allotted session, he abandons his task. Lashing out in anger and frustration, both Daniel and Katie allow themselves to be statistics, people crushed underneath the wheels of a capitalistic society where there is no desire to secure the future of the working class. With cloying certitude, Katie’s daughter spells it out for us when explaining why her younger brother has already chosen to ignore authority, “People never listen to him so why should he listen to them?” And so, I, Daniel Blake, which is arguably a lot more topical and noteworthy than Loach’s previous 2014 title, the period piece Jimmy’s Hall, has only the ability to convey shades of black and white. Daniel and Katie, reacting to the world in abject survival mode, even though they’re white and have several avenues or resources they’re never been bothered to research or required to try, are angelic and innocent despite significant faults and questionable actions. On the other hand, the shrill, and glaringly incompetent (arguably inhuman) social workers are monstrous. But what’s so bad about Sharon Percy’s tight-lipped and severe Sheila, shown several times to thwart Daniel Blake upon his numerous visits to her place of work where he demeans her and the system she stands for? Sheila is actually doing the same thing Daniel Blake is, but from a more privileged perspective, acting a selfish sod who has grown too weary to take into consideration the plight of the other humans around her. Yet we cannot afford her any pity, a woman whose life hardly seems fulfilling based on her callous reactions to those in need.
Johns’ Daniel Blake is shown to be an affable sort, a man who looks out for his fellows but is not without fault. It would have been more interesting to see him before he ascended to Loach’s soapbox, a lonely widower with a heart of gold. While Squires gives a superb performance as an overwhelmed single mother, she’s sorely in need of a backstory as well, because by the time we meet her she’s a comingled cocktail of tragedies, a starving, shoplifting woman who turns to prostitution (and is thus demeaned for it) to afford groceries and clothing for her children. Their situation may seem mildly Kafkaesque, except for the fact both of them are seen to make poor decisions which only result in making terrible situations worse.
I, Daniel Blake won Ken Loach his second Palme d’Or, a decade after taking the same award home for 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley. In a filmography swimming with notable films documenting modern tragedies of the marginalized, his latest isn’t on par with something like 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, which portrayed a tragic single mother who is not only a victim of the social welfare system but of her own making as well. “When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for,” remarks Daniel Blake at one point in the film’s home stretch. The problem with emotional registers we can describe only in abstract terms is they aren’t quantifiable. Rather, they are fluid, requiring room for fluctuation, allowed to be lost, found, and maybe evolve.
The streetwise savior in I, Daniel Blake belongs to an inherently rigid mindset, albeit one masquerading as conveying wisdom of the ‘what you see is what you get’ sort. However, on multiple viewings, Loach’s latest approaches the modern social dilemma of dehumanization superficially, even as it presents us with two humans viscerally beaten by a culture only allowed representation as a majority of blind, cruel throng of selfish drones. Compassionately rendered it may be, the road to hell, as we all know, is paved with good intentions.