Just like a Michael Moore documentary, there’s nothing subtle about a Ken Loach drama.
The 80-year-old British director and social critic has long been an ardent, insistent, eloquent champion of the more vulnerable members of society -- particularly working-class folks who are trying to do the right thing but just can’t catch a break. Whether he’s exploring homelessness, poverty or other social ills, Loach’s arguments, and emotions, are always crystal clear.
Loach has been making movies for a half-century -- some more effective than others -- but he’s in beautiful form with “I, Daniel Blake,” a searing look at one man’s seemingly futile fight against the British welfare system, against the encroachment of technology into our lives, and most of all, against the forces that can conspire to make people feel small and insignificant and, well, not human.
There are moments when “I, Daniel Blake” -- which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes -- feels like a documentary, and that’s largely due to the pitch-perfect cast Loach has assembled, from star Dave Johns -- a comedian who is occasionally funny here but also proud, anguished and increasingly angry -- down to those with the smallest parts: a security guard, a food bank employee, a kind-hearted worker at an employment office.
Johns plays Daniel, a 59-year old, widowed carpenter in northeastern England, who’s sidelined after a heart attack. Daniel aches to return to work, but doctors say his heart isn’t ready. He’s been receiving subsidies, but suddenly he’s forced to undergo an assessment to determine whether he deserves them.
Loach cleverly begins the film with merely the audio of this disheartening assessment interview, during which a clueless questioner asks absurd pre-ordained questions about, for example, the condition of his bowels. More disheartening is the result: Daniel gets 12 points, and needs 15 to keep getting assistance.
Thus begins an obstacle course that feels increasingly Monty Python-esque -- though not funny. While Daniel waits for the mere chance to appeal, he must apply for unemployment benefits, or else he’ll starve. To get them, he must prove he’s spending 35 hours a week looking for work. Even though he can’t work.
And so Daniel pursues the farce. At a CV-writing workshop, Daniel’s told he should make video CVs and send them from his smartphone -- he doesn’t have one, and can’t even operate a computer mouse.
“You give me a plot of land and I can build a house on it, but I can’t get near a computer,” he says ruefully.
At the welfare office one day, Daniel meets a single mother, in more dire straits than he is. Katie (Hayley Squires, natural and moving) has been squeezed out of London and offered dismal lodging up north instead. She’s being “sanctioned” for being late, after getting on the wrong bus.
Daniel befriends Katie, who’s struggling so much, she needs to choose between heating her apartment and buying school clothes. She cooks for her children but doesn’t have enough for herself. In one devastating scene at a food bank, she breaks open a can of beans and drinks the juice because she’s so hungry.
Her shame is agonizing to watch. So is her embarrassment when she’s caught shoplifting sanitary products. Daniel tries to keep her from despair, but his own situation is worsening, too.
There’s little comic relief here -- how can there be? Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty do give Daniel one quasi-humorous scene in which he makes a dramatic public call for recognition. The scene flirts with showiness, but does give us a break, however brief, from the bleakness.
In the end, the title, seemingly unremarkable, reveals itself as especially poignant. Daniel is crying out for recognition as an “I” -- even if he can’t contribute, even if he needs help for a while. This prolific director will no doubt be making the same argument for years to come.
By Jovelyn Noveck