NYFF54 Feature: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Ken Loach‘s brilliant I, Daniel Blake is a scathing portrait of a welfare system drowning in a sea of bureaucracy.

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Our way into this story is through “everyman” Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old Geordie (hailing from Newcastle). Recently disabled by a medical condition and unable to work, Daniel is getting nowhere in his efforts to get relief from the government services, which are allegedly put in place to help someone in his situation. He finds himself in a nightmarish, Groundhog Day scenario that involves an endless stream of paperwork, ambivalent government officials and roads that lead absolutely nowhere. It feels like a scene out of some far-flung dystopia – but no – it is this world,  this England, circa now.

During one of his fruitless expeditions to the Benefits office, Daniel meets recently-arrived-to-Newcastle single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, Dylan and Daisy, who were forced north due to affordable housing shortages in her London hometown.

Through the tears, there are still those precious nuggets of joy and the occasional laughter to be found in the film. But overall, this is a story about an extremely vulnerable segment of modern British society which by and large has been (cynically) left behind.

There is one moment involving Katie that absolutely took my breath away. Even as I recount it now, my eyes are welling up. In a scene that can’t last more than 15 seconds (if that), I was overcome by an avalanche of emotions. Kudos to Ms. Squires for her performance, which doesn’t feel like a performance as much as a channeling of the plight endured by many women who are struggling to make a way for themselves with some dignity and self-worth.

And that is the thing – not for one moment do you see these people as taking advantage of a social safety net or being “skivers,” as they are often portrayed in much of the press. They are people that through circumstances (i.e. LIFE) find themselves in a place where they need a helping hand to get through a rough patch. Thanks to a script from long-time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake subtly keys the audience into the fact that the system in place seems to be doing quite the opposite of helping those in need. By hassling and creating unbelievable obstacles in their path, the establishment succeeds in stripping away as much of individual’s self-worth as possible, to the point of making many resign themselves to their lot in life, ultimately and simply giving up. It is a powerful message to be presented in such a gentle manner.

Even as the film came to an end and I could sense where it was going, the tears continued to fall down my face. Life is not a fairy tale and even when given a cinematic treatment, it can deliver the most painful of punches to the gut.

That said, it is clear why I Daniel Blake took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is a memorable film that must be seen.

I, Daniel Blake is scheduled for release in the UK this Friday (October 21). And after making a few more film festival stops on this side of the pond, the US will get a limited release starting on December 23rd – just in time for major awards consideration.

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