I, Daniel Blake
Directed by Ken Loach
Opens December 23
I’m torn by films like I, Daniel Blake, the latest offering from “kitchen sink realist” Ken Loach and Palme d’Or winner of this past year’s Cannes Film Festival. On one hand the film is perfectly adequate. Working from an economical script by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, Loach empathetically follows the trials of the title character (stand-up comedian Dave Johns) as he unsuccessfully navigates Britain’s Kafka-esque healthcare and welfare systems.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I, Daniel Blake passes the “mightn’t this be better as a newspaper article?” test for erstwhile message pictures that attack a social issue from a single angle. Yes, Loach brings the issue to life by nurturing moving performances from a relatively green cast, especially Johns and lead actress Hayley Squires in their first major screen roles. But the film also follows an incredibly predictable narrative line that leaves little room for complexity or surprise. Like so many of its kind, I, Daniel Blake often feels more like a diagram than a film.
The diagram, in short: Daniel Blake is an elderly Newcastle carpenter who has recently suffered a heart attack. His doctor orders that he cease working during recovery, but the federal health board determines—according to a one-size-fits-all questionnaire, and without consulting his doctor—that he doesn’t qualify for “Employment and Support Allowance.” Thus ensues a series of dignity-stripping maneuvers through a merciless labyrinth that seems to contain nothing but dead ends: at one point Daniel, in order to qualify for “Jobseekers Allowance,” must prove he’s spending at least 35 hours a week looking for work, which necessitates a pointless class on resumé-building as well as a hunt for jobs that he can’t take on. Daniel’s problems are compounded by the fact that he has absolutely no idea how to use a computer (he tries to move the mouse over the surface of the screen).
Along the way Daniel befriends a young woman named Katie (Squires) and her two young children. Katie has been kicked out of a London homeless shelter and has found a place in Newcastle even though she’s barely scraping by—the Job Centre that gives Daniel such a hard time also denies her benefits when she arrives late to an appointment after getting lost in the new city. Out of the kindness of his heart, Daniel helps repair Katie’s apartment and babysits the children (while filling the missing father figure role), but her descent into malnutrition and shoplifting ultimately leads to prostitution.
I, Daniel Blake is supposed to be “an accurate representation of austerity Britain” (as claimed by a Scottish doctor who consulted Laverty on his script). But this is where investigative journalism might’ve performed a better job than a fictional, if realistic, film, because Laverty and Loach never connect the bureaucratic web that entangles Daniel with the larger forces that created it. How much money does the NHS receive now as opposed to what it used to? To which specific departments does that money go, what policies purposefully disenfranchise people or disallow benefits, and who enacts these policies and according to what ideologies, etc.?
The problem is that Laverty and Loach address these issues by depicting what can be easily perceived—at least for someone unfamiliar with the British healthcare system—as the inherent ineptitude of large-scale institutions, which nearly always overwhelm rare selfless efforts from individuals that comprise it: workers at the food bank where Katie must obtain her supplies are friendly and helpful (evidently they’re played by real workers), and one woman at the Job Centre actually breaks protocol to show Daniel how to navigate a website (of course, she’s reprimanded for doing so).
Of course, if one knows enough about the macroscopic influence of British politics on the NHS then I, Daniel Blake works just fine. Laverty and Loach provide enough dimensionality to their characters to (mostly) avoid using them as mere props: Daniel’s humor, for instance, allows him to resist complete dehumanization, though Laverty’s bons mots sometimes feel contrived (“We’re moving further and further away from me heart,” says Daniel when asked a standard issue question by a healthcare professional about his fingers). The story also possesses a real sense of place, with Loach shooting on location in order to root the drama in working class, institutional, and gentrified environments.
But once I, Daniel Blake got underway I found it difficult to pretend that I didn’t know exactly where it was headed, even as I choked back tears during Daniel’s verbal remembrances of his late wife. And as much as the film preached to my bleeding heart, I sometimes suspected that Laverty and Loach didn’t want anything to go right for their protagonist—an ending that might have given Daniel a last act of defiance is swapped out for an inevitable ironic tragedy that caps the proceedings via stock martyrdom, complete with a denouement (and final moral) delivered through eulogy. Strangely, it’s as if a project with a core sense of compassion—if not imagination—resorts to cruelty just to dot every last dramatic j and i.