I, DANIEL BLAKE
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Ken Loach
Written by: Paul Laverty
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann,
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 12/15/16
Opens: December 23, 2016
If you want to know why Trump won, watch and read the pundits for an intellectual understanding. Then see “I, Daniel Blake” for the emotional answer, using another country as an example. The principal group in the U.S. who voted Republican did not necessarily vote against their economic interests, nor are the “basket of deplorables” that Hillary stupidly called them last September. They are citizens of the world’s richest country, but they either left the labor market after an exhausting attempt to find a job or are still working but getting pay that does not buy them much more than it did it 1970. They filled the computer sheet for Trump because they wanted an outsider, one who they accept as being outside “the system,” a man who can shake up politics as usual, stop the exodus of jobs overseas, and make America great again. They will be sadly disappointed by the end of his term, but then, they were disappointed by regular, experienced Republicans and Democrats before.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) could be a stand-in for the unfortunate, poor whites in America. He paid his taxes for most of a typical working life as a handyman, but after a heart attack at age fifty-nine, his doctor told him to take considerable time off. He is disabled; not a fake, not looking to scam, and because he is living in an industrially developed country like the UK, he should have expected to eke out a basic living on the dole. We watch the downturn of this friendly chap who knows how to measure wood, cut it, and place it cozily on furniture to make a bookcase, but is stymied by a welfare department whose personnel do their best to drive people into either a psychotic break or the grave. The digital world is no friend of Blake. His skill with his hands appears obsolete, computers add to the layers of bureaucracy that whose hoops he would have to jump through. The bureaucracy delays his appeal for weeks when he is about to lose his Newcastle flat, and his eager search for employment is a waste of time. There are no jobs left for him, his “advanced” age doing him no favor either.
As illustrated by Ken Loach, the British director whose ideology of socialist realism kept him from straying into Hollywood, had last contributed the movie public “Jimmy Hall,” which takes place when the title character returns to depression Ireland after ten years in exile. He wants only to re-open a dance hall that gave great pleasure to the villagers, but the right-wing government and conservative church are opposed because it looks to them like the work of a socialist activist. With “I, Daniel Blake,” Loach walks us through Daniel’s wasted visits to the Newcastle welfare bureaucrats where he is regularly told that despite his disability, he is not eligible for benefits. He calls the appropriate office and must wait one hour and forty-eight minutes for an answer.
He mixes well with his neighbors, kidding the guy who lives next door who has received a package of fancy sneakers from China that he expects to sell on the street. He has a reason to look beyond his own problems when he meets Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two kids, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan). The mother risks starvation in order to provide a modicum of food for her two youngsters. He helps them get set up in Newcastle, where she has been exiled from her residence in London by the authorities. Both have no money, limited prospects, and become like a family.
To Loach’s credit, he does not portray the welfare personnel as a bunch of villains, but instead indicts the system. The hands of the government workers are tied. A “decision maker” will make the ruling on whether Daniel must return to work (he is physically unable and can’t find anything anyway), but probably even that higher official is bound by the rules of the government to deny money to anyone who is not half-dead. Blake is ready to explode and does exactly that in a scene near the conclusion.
Opening December 23, this is hardly a “Christmas movie,” in much the way that “Collateral Beauty,” a considerably inferior film, is similarly without cheer. It’s downright depressing, and not for a potential audience that wants to hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer in the megaplex. That’s the whole point, Loach is here to raise public concern with fellow citizens, some of whom may think that disabled people are cheating and driving Cadillacs to the welfare office. To risk a broader interpretation, perhaps Loach is disgusted with a capitalist system that refuses to hire anyone over fifty, with few possible exceptions. What’s the answer: socialism? Perhaps. Now if Bernie Sanders took up UK citizenship and became Prime Minister, what would he do? The UK is a developed nation but it is relative poor by Western European standards. Would he be able to find the money? Would he tax the rich enough but not so much to see them streaming jobs overseas?
The picture that Loach draws is in many ways the opposite of “Sicko,” directed by Michael Moore, who shows us that the British welfare system is superior to ours. People can pay for medications with pocket change, and what’s more the medical office gives them bus fare home. Neither Loach nor Moore, however, is completely correct. The answer is more nuanced. The UK does not have enough money in the public sector (neither does the U.S.) to provide minimum support to all who deserve it, but the British are not the model for medical services. Listen to reports of Brits, who like Canadians may have to wait months for a diagnostic test as simple as an MRI.
Ken Loach, in any case, is the preeminent movie director with a soft heart for the working class and the poor. His films are all worth seeing, and “I, Daniel Blake,” is considered by some to be among his best.
Unrated. 100 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+