I, Daniel Blake plays October 1 and October 2 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects will release the movie in New York December 23. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
When we meet Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), he’s arguing with a man at the welfare office. He’s had a heart attack and his doctor has advised him not to work. The government’s own doctor has deemed him fit to return to work, and so they won’t pay him unemployment unless he proves he’s out looking for a new job that he can’t accept because his doctor told him not to work. So he has to fill out three forms to prove he can’t work, but that’s he actively searching for the work he can’t perform, and in order to do this he has to use a computer, which he hasn’t got and doesn’t know how to use anyway. Welcome to the bureaucratic nightmare that is Ken Loach’s England, a place of paperwork, smothered dreams and honest folk driven to madness and violence because the way forward’s been bricked off. Blake isn’t the only one driven round the bend by the welfare service. At the office the day he goes to complain is Kattie (Hayley Squires) who’s half-mad thanks to the effort it took to move her two kids from London to Newcastle and look for work as a house cleaner. Her son is hyperactive and distant, her daughter’s being teased mercilessly at school, and she can’t afford groceries for either of them. Daniel makes fast friends with Kattie’s family and he becomes a necessary, calming presence in their life, but fixing the plumbing and the heating won’t generate income for either party. Something drastic has to be done and quick.
Ken Loach’s movies, with their purposefully pared down-design, bring to mind critic Stanley Kauffmann’s piece about Lola Montès. He worried that when critics like Andrew Sarris called it the greatest film of all time it would ghettoize filmmakers of certain stylistic registers: “The worst aspect of this approach is that it crimps the film out of its cultural heritage: the cinematic and the literary and theatrical and psychological and social and political—and says to it, ‘Just go and be cinematic…’ It is an aesthetic equivalent of the Victorian ethic of ‘knowing your place.'” Ken Loach has, starting with his foundational work in the 1960s (Kes, Poor Cow), run in the opposite direction. He lives to remind audiences that they don’t have a “place,” that the wide world should be theirs for the taking. To do this he’s limited himself to a handful of cinematic practices. No close-ups, no presentational lighting, no jiggering with continuity or chronology, no tricking his audience’s eyes, just the simplicity of his heroes’ faces and the fundamentally damaged but enduring landscapes they inhabit. If he’s going to tell a story honestly about the conditions of working class life, it wouldn’t do to lie about them, to make them “cinematic.” But then if your film isn’t “cinematic,” what is it?
Being a Ken Loach fan means running up against the reverse Stanley Kauffmann argument, rubbing your temples, shutting one eye, cocking your head to the side and saying “well yeah, but…” Loach films everything with the same depth of field and distance, to ensure that people remain people, instead of objects of sensual suffering. He wants people to feel empathy for his subjects, not admire them as pieces of religious art (an effort the neorealists never bothered with). For decades now, he’s told the story of simple folk beset by injustice who conspire to do something, anything to survive, and maybe leave the world better than how they found it. But his Billy Bragg-esque mix of simple pathos and dad humour (in Blake there are his usual comic relief notes, most of which are flat, including an inexcusable series of comedy fadeouts) can’t always carry a whole film. He thinks people can still provide catharsis by simply existing without help from the gaffer, the composer or the editor, and proves himself right and wrong. Scenes like Kattie breaking down at a food bank are preposterously affecting and remind us why Loach has been a fixture in world cinema for so many decades. Conversely, scenes like a supposedly show-stopping act of vandalism do little but showcase the ways Loach has fallen out of touch.
Thankfully Robbie Ryan, his most recent director of photography, found a way to cheat a little. As in a sublime mid-film slow dance in the underrated Jimmy’s Hall (which never got a proper release over here), his lighting of I, Daniel Blake manages to create meaningful, memorable compositions of the characters without compromising anyone’s humanity. Take for instance a shot of Blake returning from brief incarceration, the stark single overhead light on the back of his white hair as he contemplates going back out the prison doors. It’s the first time Loach has let his character sit in something like a motivated close-up, and it’s the image from I, Daniel Blake that will stay with me longest. It makes him a hero, which is probably why Loach was ok with it, because he does want to rhapsodize Blake just a little, if only for his resilience. That Loach, at 80, thinks some of us deserve that particular commendation is remarkable in and of itself. Think about it: the man survived WWII and Thatcher and lived long enough to see Brexit. He has every reason to be disappointed in people. And yet he’s one of the few people left in the world who believes you owe someone respect when you choose to point a camera at them, and that respect is always on screen. I, Daniel Blake shows off the best and worst of Ken Loach’s direction, just as he so frequently showed the highs and lows of human compassion.