Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is so unyieldingly empathetic that even its bleakest moments carry an air of triumph. In trying to create his paean to the working man Loach has stripped him of his three-dimensional humanity and replaced it with two-dimensional platitude. The 80-year-old English director won his second Palm d’Or for this one (the first was awarded to the superior The Wind that Shakes the Barley) proving perhaps, amidst all the bluster surrounding the panel’s celebration of arthouse and cinéma vérité, they’re still suckers for a good underdog story. Unfortunately, I, Daniel Blake can’t be mistaken for anything else, despite Loach’s admirable Vittorio De Sica-esque approach to the daily injustices of the down-and-out and destitute, I, Daniel Blake never really transcends its one-man-against-the-system narrative, coming across as by the numbers at best. Loach’s passion project does have its moments of tragic understatement and aching simplicity (a moment inside the food bank is particularly dreary), but even in its best moments seems to mistake basic human compassion for shoddy blue collar nobility.
The movie starts with its titular character, Daniel, participating in a questionnaire intended to determine whether he, after suffering a cardiac arrest, is qualified to receive financial support from unemployment. To the cardiologist—and anyone with common sense—the answer is pretty self-explanatory but, to Employment and Support Allowance, Daniel is apparently deemed “fit for work.” Dave Johns as Daniel Blake hits all the right notes, but what’s most impressive about his performance is that he bears a comic’s touch of exploiting the absurdity of common everyday scenarios to borderline profundity. After being rejected by Employment and Support Allowance, Daniel is quickly thrown into a world where he’s forced to learn how computers work (despite never having used one in his life) and verbally wrangle with government pencil pushers.
After failing to negotiate with a multitude of desk workers Daniel comes across a young single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), and her two young children, who encounter similar dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic nightmare of the Jobseekers Allowance. Unable to quell his frustration for the abject systemic ignorance happening before his eyes Daniel angrily scolds the office’s employees and, with the young mother and her kids, angrily storms out of the building. Loach’s approach has been described as understated, which is odd, because he seems to be guilty of the opposite. He’s way too direct and vociferously self-conscious to come off as so. He may captures a simple waiting cue with a Kafka-like realism, but succumbs to painting Jobseekers desk workers as gargoylish and unfeeling to the point of inhuman. If anything, Dave Johns plainspoken integrity paints a more honest picture. Even as he hues and cries, assailing the system from every angle and without the slightest touch of subtlety, he manages to evoke a feeling of what these injustices might mean to the individual, and perhaps allow for a bit of insight into their suffering (a powerful soliloquy in the film begins with him asking “It’s a monumental farce isn’t it?”).
Ken Loach’s pursuits are certainly noble and worthy of his attention but, seemingly, unworthy of his craftsmanship. Roger Ebert accurately prescribed that “if a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason” and, in that sense, that’s all Ken Loach fails at doing either effectively—but that doesn’t make what he’s saying untrue, or make his film any less interesting. The political discussion sparked after I, Daniel Blake’s release was a surprisingly incendiary, what followed were highly publicized hatchet jobs doled out against Ken Loach by government shills and others who sought to call his film exaggerated, or even downright dishonest. Unfortunately for these guys it doesn’t take much research to see that what Loach isn’t anything new (and certainly not dishonest).
Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake only finds depth and insight in increments, but its simplicity goes a long way. The purest vision of authenticity in the film comes almost solely from Hayley Squires as the young ailing single mother of two kids, who befriends Daniel Blake and begins to fall down a dark path to make ends meet. Dave Johns, on the other hand, is the film’s flickering passion. His stand-up comic sensibility provide even the most mundane images with a Gilliam-esque insanity, one moment hits particularly close to home, in which Daniel can’t tell the difference between a computer mouse and the pointer in the screen. Johns’ frankness and open-heart provide every absurdity in the film with its much-needed voice of reason and humanity. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is mostly tepid aphorisms conquered only by its human touch.