In many ways, Ken Loach’s social drama I, Daniel Blake is as shamelessly manipulative as the most reductive romantic comedy or melodrama. Daniel might be the single most decent and loveable human being to grace a movie screen during the whole of 2016. At his side is a similarly decent single mother whose tearful travails are the stuff of a 19th-century immigrant’s saga. Together they contend with petty bureaucrats who never miss an opportunity to let their rulebooks and prickly egos keep them from doing their jobs. It’s David versus Goliath, only David doesn’t use a slingshot because he’s just too nice a bloke.
But just as sometimes there is nothing at all wrong with the most reductive romantic comedy (so long as one has had a few libations and Kate Hudson is nowhere to be seen), there is even less wrong with watching one phenomenally decent man as he highlights the inequities of an inhuman system. It helps that for his titular hero, he chose the British comic and TV actor Dave Johns. Playing Daniel as a solid-looking fellow whose outspokenness is offset by a disarming modesty and twinkling humor, Johns complicates an individual who might easily have been a granite pillar inscribed “The Common Man.” Daniel Blake is a hero, a tragic figure, and also the guy you would love to have living down the hall.
The premise of Paul Laverty’s thin but steely script is that Daniel, a carpenter in Newcastle, can’t work because he’s been diagnosed with a heart condition. But a Catch-22 in the social welfare system forces him to go hunting for jobs that he can’t take in order to keep receiving his benefits. Each of his interactions with the bureaucrats becomes a blood pressure-raising exercise in procedural inanity. After being demeaned by one too many box-checkers, Daniel sees Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two at her wits’ end, enduring the same treatment. He explodes.
When the lot of them are tossed out of the government office, Daniel makes a decision. A widower with no children, he’s soon buying groceries and spent what looks like days fixing up things around Katie’s government-assigned housing. When we see Katie, a frayed-at-the-edges type who seems to have missed pretty much every break in life, suddenly in the company of this dependable fellow, it feels like the entire film exhales.
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Ken Loach has been accused of making films that are more stridently left-of-center essays than cinematic art. There’s some truth to that, for instance, his 1995 Spanish Civil War epic Land and Freedom. But with films like I, Daniel Blake, or the lilting 2012 comedy The Angel’s Share, Loach shows more nuance than any caricature of a stern “political” filmmaker.
There’s political intent here, of course. But I, Daniel Blake isn’t a dour lesson in social uplift. In drawing its rhythms and energies from the ad-hoc family unit formed by Daniel, Katie, and her kids, it offers emotional weight in their best efforts to block out the poverty and hopelessness that surround them. As they try to retain their dignity and sense of worth inside a system that looks designed to grind them down, they offer a satisfying bite and grit instead of speeches. Even if Loach uses them as magnifying glasses to show the soul-deadening effects of being one more powerless cogs in a large, uncaring system, he makes the point persuasively and skillfully, en route to I, Daniel Blake‘s emotional hammer blow of an ending.
“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user,” Daniel proclaims during his single act of social disobedience. “I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief.” He’s demanding to be seen as a man, no different than his neighbors, a man who needs help, just like everyone else.