Review: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

I, Daniel Blake is a cry of anguish and a passionate declaration that the ordinary man ought to have dignity in this world. It’s a polemical work disguised as a social realist drama, without being nearly as manipulative as that sounds. Made by octogenarian socialist filmmaker Ken Loach and winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake is as good as films of this sort get. It broke my heart before filling me with a passionate fury that only social transformation will begin to temper.

I, Daniel Blake follows Dan (Dave Johns), a widowed carpenter who has recently suffered a heart attack. His doctor says he needs to rest lest he develop arrhythmia, but the bureaucratic drones of the British social services disagree and pronounce him fit to work. Thus, Dan is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He cannot work since it might kill him, but he cannot rest since he must look for work in order to qualify for social benefits. He finds common solace with a single mother, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), who is in similar circumstances and struggling to make a fresh start in Newcastle with her two children.

From the opening credits, when we hear Dan argue with a condescending “health care professional” about his recent termination of coverage, the dehumanizing procedure of austerity is on full display, agitating our outrage. No scene alleviates this outrage. Instead, the film patiently depicts the labyrinthine ways that the current British “welfare” system has been purposed to actually grind people into the ground and debase them so that they stop pursuing the very benefits they need to live.

Loach and his collaborators—actors Dave Johns (making his feature debut, which is astounding) and Hayley Squires and writer Paul Laverty—never oversell the individual moments, instead finding a means of depicting the bureaucratic process and the emotional struggles with the focus of a documentarian. In fact, the film is shot much like a documentary, with long takes, minimal lighting, and quiet music. Loach’s fidelity to social realism extends to form and not just content.

One scene, involving Squires visiting a food bank and desperately scarfing down beans straight from the can because she has been forgoing meals in order to provide for her kids, is completely mundane, but absolutely heartbreaking. It forces you to comprehend the food banks in your own cities and the disgraceful ways we withhold from people their most basic needs unless they beg for it and humiliate themselves in the process.

While I generally dislike movies that have explicitly political aims, I, Daniel Blake has made me reconsider this stance. Perhaps I only dislike films that champion superficial political ends or pursue change in ways that undercut any substance of their narrative. Or perhaps my outlook on politics and political agency has changed since Trump was elected. Regardless, I, Daniel Blake so empathetically depicts the struggles of its ordinary characters, and so comprehends the way that neoliberal austerity destroys social welfare systems, that it works as both a shattering drama and a rousing political message, with one enriching the other.

Simply put, this is a story of uncommon patience and insight. That it speaks loudly to the world we inhabit only makes it more vital.

9 out of 10

I, Daniel Blake (2016, UK/France/Germany/Belgium)

Directed by Ken Loach; written by Paul Laverty; starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Kate Rutter.