Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the American release of British director Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” arrives just a few days after the stunning U.K. general election. But it somehow seems appropriate that this emotionally devastating masterpiece rides the wave of post-Brexit uncertainty and disorder that led to shocking election results.
Loach referred to a “cinema of dissent” while accepting the Palme d’Or for “Blake” at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. He has long been of cinema’s most provocative voices, and certainly one of its most controversial.
“I, Daniel Blake” is a genuinely stirring effort that ranks as its director’s finest film, outpacing even “Poor Cow,” “Kes,” “Raining Stones,” and his previous Palme d’Or winner, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”
Though the film's victory at Cannes was surprising — it beat “American Honey,” “Elle,” “The Handmaiden,” “Loving” and “The Salesman” — it is not hard to see why this blunt, fierce rallying cry for the disenfranchised came away with the win.
“I, Daniel Blake” opens on a black screen, as the title character (British comedian Dave Johns) submits, with increasing irritation, to a series of questions about his health. The widower has recently suffered an on-the-job heart attack, one that nearly killed him.
Frustration becomes ever-constant for Blake. While his doctor tells him he is not healthy enough to return to work, a government agency deems him fit enough for employment. Therefore, the 59-year-old carpenter is denied his benefits.
The film, then, is mainly about Blake’s difficulties in filing an appeal — he is not computer savvy, to say the least — and the ridiculously complex, heartless processes that follow his application. Loach brutally captures a world of computer error messages, endless hold-times and recurrent condescension.
“All it does is humiliate me, grind me down,” Blake says. “Maybe that’s the point.”
He befriends the similarly marginalized Katie Morgan (Haley Squires), a single mother of two forced to move from Newcastle to London. Morgan has tangible goals; she wants to further her education. But she has no tangible way of making this happen.
Blake offers to help with home repairs and babysitting, and these tasks give him a small sense of purpose while his appeal remains in park.
For Morgan, though, nothing improves. Squires is heartbreaking, never more so than in a scene of utter hopelessness at a food bank. Starving, she tearfully begins to eat voraciously from a can. It’s a scene of humiliation that captures the desperation of poverty as well as any sequence in film history.
Loach is careful to show that there are good people, people who want to help. Blake is one of them, and so, too, is the friendly government employee who helps him with his online application.
The film culminates in a spontaneous, impassioned bit of spray-paint protest art that earns Blake applause from passers-by and consternation from the benefits’ office staff. It is his only “victory,” a momentary bit of catharsis amidst the sadness. This feeling does not last long; the film’s final 10 minutes are a sharp comedown.
Loach’s simple, unfussy style and the performances of Johns and Squires combine to make “I, Daniel Blake” an absolute must-see. Raw in its anger and razor-sharp in its analysis of bureaucracy-gone-bad, “I, Daniel Blake” is a film of real purpose. It’s one of the year’s essential releases — maybe its most essential.
“I, Daniel Blake”
4 stars (out of 4)
Dave Johns, Hayley Squires and Kate Rutter star in film about a carpenter who fights bureaucracy after suffering a heart attack. 100 minutes. Rated R for language.