I, Daniel Blake is heavy handed but effective
Watching I, Daniel Blake raises an interesting question; in order to reach the masses, do you need to dumb down your ideas so everybody can understand your message? Despite some terrific acting and a story as deliberately infuriating as it tragic, Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or-winning drama lacks any kind of subtlety.
A furious attack on ‘Food Bank Britain’, I, Daniel Blake tells the story of the titular carpenter (Geordie stand-up Dave Johns) who, after suffering a serious heart attack, is told by the bureaucratic employment office that he must continue applying for work, despite being medically unfit to do so. Harshly dismissed from claiming benefits, Blake meets single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), forced to move from London to Newcastle and struggling on little money. The two get by whilst facing indignity after dignity, until Blake decides it’s time to take action.
Ken Loach is still Britain’s most political filmmaker, and I, Daniel Blake is a seething indictment of Tory government. Despite being deeply unwell, Blake is forced to spend hours on hold just to find out he can’t speak to anyone over the phone, or wait around for a free computer in the library to update his CV, despite having never used a computer. At its best, the film is a moving portrayal of a platonic friendship between two people with nothing left; Blake uses his carpentry skills to fix up Katie’s shabby council house, while Katie invites him into her family. Both leading actors are superb; despite being amateurs, Johns and Squires give heartbreaking, humane performances.
Neither Loach nor screenwriter Paul Laverty are known for their subtleties, and it’s a shame that the script is often so clumsy and heavy-handed. The best scenes are wordless, like Blake killing time around town before he’s allowed to use the library computers, or Squires giving up all her dignity in a powerful scene set in a food bank. Unfortunately, Laverty likes to write characters who say exactly what they’re thinking, often through awkward speeches and unnatural dialogue. Even worse is a late plot development in which Katie is offered a way of making money by a security guard; not only is it utterly cliché and predictable, but it kills the realism dead, replacing it with weepy melodrama. Sadly, clichés begin to suffocate the film right up until its final state-of-address.
Loach is trying to make the masses weep, but I, Daniel Blake works best as a protest, firing up the blood and making you want to march on 10 Downing Street. There’s no nuance or subtleties to be found here; the leading characters are worn-down, put-upon saints, whilst job centre employees and government workers are uniformly villains. Thankfully, Johns and Squires are so warm and sympathetic, they overcome their overwritten parts to achieve some real poignancy. Loach and Laverty may pile on the tragedy until it becomes melodrama, but I, Daniel Blake is so powerful a protest, you’ll still feel moved by the end.
By Harry J. Ford
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