Overview: An unhealthy man in need of state assistance meets a homeless single mother. eOne Films/Le Pacte; 2016; 100 Minutes.
A Familiar Setup: I, Daniel Blake tells the classic tale of man versus oppressive government and sadistic bureaucracy. The struggle for survival reveals beauty in humanity. The titular character and all those who accept and reciprocate his benevolence represent the best in ordinary people and Loach-ian storytelling. The film suggests that, for all of our social flaws, we can truly persevere through those important, meaningful connections afforded by small, seemingly trivial interactions. If occasionally the film veers to close to sappiness, it is excused when it corrects course and finds heartbreaking and heartwarming sincerity.
A Predictable Return to Form: Director Ken Loach has built his legendary reputation by measuring the strength of the human spirit against the cold cruelty of class systems and governments, and now, in the later stages of his career, his narrative focus on the plight of an aging man draws attention to a group and a problem that is largely mishandled by modern society. The titular Blake finds himself incapable of working, unable to collect worker’s compensation, and awaiting an appeal that seems unlikely to arrive in time. The basic premise makes it easy for us to root for our main character, which in turn exposes our own helplessness within the story and within real life matters that reflect the same issue.
Daniel’s story intertwines with that of immigrant Katie, played by a delicate Hayley Squires, and her three children – all victims of bureaucracy who exude hardened and courageous dispositions, each hiding vulnerability in a way that feels necessary. As Blake, Dave Johns channels his stand-up comedian origins and a sensitive humor in spite of (but perhaps drawn from) tragedy. The performances are brimming with an authenticity that lends credence and believability to their every word.
A Simple Power: Loach finds power within the simplest of interactions and does so sparingly. I, Daniel Blake is neither emotionally manipulative nor too draining, but it is emotionally powerful, filled with scenes that channel desperation and explore a spectrum of emotions. Loach sets the film against an urban Irish backdrop. Though the film is politically charged (as we have come to expect that from this Irish filmmaker) it presents its politicism through a more emotive and human level. The scathing commentary is not misplaced, always imbued with a sense of urgency and, at times, borders on satire.
Overall: Ken Loach, even this far into his career as an activist artist, never feels phony in his pleas. There is such a strong sense of heart in I, Daniel Blake.