I, Daniel Blake
80-year-old director Ken Loach gets a bit heavy-handed in this film, but it still won me over. That’s because watching comedian Dave Johns is just a blast. He can bring the pathos, the humor, and everything needed for the character of Daniel Blake.
Blake is a hard-working carpenter who has a heart attack and is told by his doctors he can’t work for awhile. That leads to Kafkaesque encounters with the government agency in charge of giving him disability payments. Anybody who has had to deal with unemployment will cringe at the familiarity of this scenario. He answers a question one way, and they say he’s capable to work. Yet if the doctors don’t clear him, no company will hire him. If he doesn’t actively look for work, he won’t get his payments. Yet he doesn’t know how to use a computer, so he can’t apply online. If he does it the old fashion way, there’s no proof he’s actually looking for work. It’s the most bizarre catch-22 of red tape ever.
What was a pleasant surprise for a movie with this message is how effective and realistic it was. The office staff is rather cold towards him. We get that type of behavior from doctor’s offices, the DMV, and the unemployment office. It’s a mixture of people not caring enough about humanity but also…people that are frustrated with their jobs. That might be because there are people using the system and not looking for work, but occasionally there are people like this. They want to work. They don’t want to just take money from the government, but they have no choice. And in this big process, it can be a rather demeaning procedure.
What also makes this film interesting, is that it is filled with a few people that are trying to help. It could be a random stranger he asks for help at the library, as he tries to negotiate the online form. It might be the one person that tries to help him in the unemployment office (and is quickly reprimanded for doing so).
Screenwriter Paul Laverty also gets some credit for making Blake a character we’d like to live next door to. In fact, the younger folks living next to him take his ribbing about leaving trash on the balcony, or their scheme to make a profit selling athletic shoes they buy cheaper online. He’s also quick to yell at somebody if the situation calls for it. That could be a person that lets their dog crap on your lawn (haven’t we all wanted to do that?), or a woman (Hayley Squires) he sees in the unemployment office that is also treated poorly after showing up late for an appointment. The two become friends, and he helps her fix up the apartment she’s living in, and babysits her kids when she’s looking for work. The direction they go with her character is contrived and doesn’t feel genuine, though. It’s the only thing in the movie that’s forced and just doesn’t work. It also doesn’t help that a lot of this is predictable.
The movie could’ve used a bit more nuance.
This is the type of movie that critics that hate Trump will champion. It’ll surely be overpraised by movie critics.
It could’ve used a bit less sermonizing.
But the film has some touching, tender moments and the perfect amount of gallows humor.
You might have trouble with the accents once in awhile, but this is a movie worth seeking out.
3 stars out of 5.