Dir. Ken Loach. U.K. 2016

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Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year old heart attack victim who is trying to collect welfare in the city of Newcastle, England comes up against a dehumanizing system that seems to be out to thwart him at every step of the process in I, Daniel Blake, British director Ken Loach and his long time scriptwriter Ken Laverty’s latest collaboration. Winner of the Palme d`Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the film has a social conscience and does not hesitate to pull out all the emotional stops, but is unfortunately undercut by an excessive amount of speechmaking, contrived situations, and sentimentality. Performed by British stand-up comedian Dave Johns, the film is guaranteed to bring laughter, tears, and also anger at the system’s cold-hearted bureaucrats who know about rules and regulations but not so much about people’s needs.

The film opens with a black screen. Slowly, we begin to hear a man being interviewed by a woman who identifies herself as a health-care professional. Having to answer lame questions about his cognitive abilities and motor skills but nothing about his heart, Dan tells the interviewer, “We’re getting further and further away from my heart.” He has been told by his doctor that he is not ready to go back to work and has applied for an Employment and Support Allowance, a stipend paid to those unable to work because of a disability. Unfortunately, the government concludes that he is fit for work, forcing him to appeal to the “decision maker” to change the ruling.

Forced to jump through a set of hoops just to earn the right to appeal, Dan must prove that he has spent 35 hours a week looking for work. Applying for Jobseeker’s Allowance and not being computer savvy, he has to seek help just to learn how to use a mouse. When he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother with two small children (Briana Shann and Dylan Phillip McKiernan) who has just come from London and is in need of assistance, the story becomes about people working together to provide mutual support in dealing with a faceless bureaucracy.

Dan and Katie become friends with Dan offering moral support and using his carpenter skills to make her flat more livable. Katie looks for work as a cleaner, sacrifices food to make sure her children are fed, and is even forced to work briefly as a call girl. One of the most heartbreaking scenes occurs at a visit to the local Food Bank when Katie has a breakdown after opening and eating a can of baked beans, but both are resilient and determined not to let the system crush them. I, Daniel Blake, without question, comes from a good place and Blake captures our allegiance with his grumpy determination, kindness and concern for others, but there is little room here for nuance, balance, or objectivity. The film exists to make a point and everything else is subordinate to that. Though the performances are first-rate and Johns has perfect comic timing, I, Daniel Blake is not, in my view, one of Loach’s better efforts.


Howard Schumann

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