The powerful social dramas of English filmmaker Ken Loach are as full of devastation as any action blockbuster. The difference is that it’s society that goes falling down, not skyscrapers, and the supervillain is no alien life form but everyday human-scale injustice.
Last year, the 80-year-old director came out of retirement and won his second Cannes Palme d’Or with his powerful, politically charged film “I, Daniel Blake.” This is a simple story about a hot topic. It’s wonderfully told, full of deep compassion, scalding rage and surprising humor. It’s not to be missed.
Daniel, played by comedian Dave Johns with dry seriousness, is a carpenter in the north of England. He’s not yet at retirement age, but a heart attack that he suffered before the film begins keeps him from climbing tall scaffolds at his work. His doctor advises rest and adequate time to heal.
The Kafkaesque government bureaucracy overseeing his unemployment benefits sees him only in terms of economics. In the name of austerity, countless people like Daniel have been reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. The “health care professional” who handles Daniel’s case with robotic disinterest awards him an abstract score of 12 disability points. It would take 15 to entitle him to a temporary support payment that would barely cover his modest rent.
Of course, he can appeal the decision and wait forever in hopes it might be reversed. In the meantime, his only source of income is the smaller government stipend offered to job seekers. To earn it, Daniel must perform a Kabuki dance of submitting detailed daily records of his effort to apply for largely nonexistent jobs that he isn’t fit enough to work should he find one. In scene after infuriating scene, it’s clear that these intentionally inefficient processes are designed to discourage claimants like Daniel until they stop seeking welfare of any sort, erasing them like inconvenient statistics.
Loach, an outspoken progressive, made the film because he was appalled by the Tory government’s slashing of Britain’s social safety net. But the movie is more than polemical propaganda. It’s a story about the value of human decency. As Daniel, Johns is a good-humored, industrious workman who sees most people he encounters, including his cheeky, computer-savvy young neighbors, as fix-up projects.
Prime among them is young single mother Katie (flawlessly natural Hayley Squires). Exiled to Newcastle from London because low-income public housing is unavailable, Katie is stonewalled at Daniel’s job center because the bus that carried her was minutes late for her appointment. He pulls her under his compassionate wing, babysitting her two small kids, making gifts of his carved wooden fish mobiles and sharing small dinners.
This film treats the issue of hunger with agonizing candor. Not often have I been made so upset by a film as in the scene where trembling Katie, nearly falling down faint, joins the long lines at a food bank. Once inside she tries to conceal her humiliating need to open a can of beans and eat before she collapses. It is unbearable, gut-wrenching filmmaking.
“When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for,” warns Daniel, who stands up to the Dickensian outrages of contemporary Britain with principled defiance. Loach is too realistic to imply that a single person fighting the good fight could reverse the tide of history. But it is enough to create a riveting piece of cinema.
I, Daniel Blake
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for language