Brief Review: I, Daniel Blake/ Ken Loach

We’ve all seen them—the desperate young woman who talks back when the unemployment insurance agent turns nasty, or the intransigent old man who refuses to fill out a fourth irrelevant health insurance form. We chide them, thinking, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere by behaving this way. Just do what you’re asked and get your benefits.’ But sometimes, doing what you’re asked is simply too high a price to pay.

In I, Daniel Blake, Daniel has just had a heart attack, so he can’t work. After a 40-year career of steady, full-time employment, he knows nothing about the social services system that has suddenly become his sole provider. All he knows is that trying to get his benefits is making him feel like crap, and he doesn’t like it.

Neither does Katie, a single mother with two small kids who’s got dreams of going back to school so she can leave the crummy flat she’s been assigned and buy her own food instead of relying on handouts. When Dan sees Katie being harrassed in the social services office he comes to her aid. A beautiful friendship develops between Dan, Katie, and her kids—the family none of them ever had. But this is no Cinderella story, and this bright light remains the only one in a tale that goes from painful to impossible.

With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach returns to his pre-Wind that Shakes the Barley days—to a time when he made My Name Is Joe and Kes, films that convey the angst, the irony, and the despair of England’s lower classes in a rough, handheld manner. I, Daniel Blake has the higher production values of Loach’s later films, but it’s his darkest film yet, filled with a despair that is fundamental, all-encompassing, and brutally real.

Many of the people who work with Loach speak of his ability to bring out good, strong, natural performances by giving his actors an unprecedented amount of freedom. Jim Norton, who starred in Jimmy’s Hall, said, “Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken [Loach] and Paul [Laverty, Loach’s longtime screenwriter and screenwriter for I, Daniel Blake] are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, ‘Let’s go this way.’ It’s a very interesting way to work.”

And work it does in I, Daniel Blake. One never knows where the director’s input ends and the actor’s skill takes over, but in I, Daniel Blake, Dave Johns (Daniel) and Hayley Squires (Katie) play normal folks on the edge with such compassion that it’s almost too heartbreaking to endure. They capture the humiliation of their situations with such agonizing familiarity that it’s impossible to remain apart from them. And this is the point: However much we are not like them, they are us, and we are them. Denying so would be artificial. And artificial is one thing Ken Loach never allows us to be.

I, Daniel Blake opens December 23 in New York City, at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and LA, Laemmle Royal, with a national rollout to follow.

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