In Ken Loach’s latest sobering social drama, “I, Daniel Blake”, all the anger rises to the top. If the aesthetic, in keeping with Loach’s usual methods, is often muted, the rage that boils within is not. Written by Paul Laverty, “I, Daniel Blake” is a direct salvo against Britain’s benefits sanctions, against a system that has dropped the ball for those who need it most. This is not, it must be noted, an evenhanded portrayal. Only a single state employee glimpsed throughout is painted in anything like a sympathetic light and even that employee is pulled aside and lectured by a higher-up for deigning to do a good deed. But then, Loach reckons he is speaking for the common man, the one who has no voice because mostly every time he tries to use it he winds up stuck in the wilderness of automated phone lines. This is aggressive advocacy, take it or leave it.
Loach’s fictional advocate is Daniel Blake, a widowed 59 year old carpenter who has just had a heart attack as the film opens and, with danger of an arrhythmia lurking, is told by his doctor that he cannot yet return to work. Fair enough, except he fails a means test for disability benefits, which is relayed during the opening credits over black in audio only, underscoring his invisibility to the system, which forces him to apply for unemployment benefits instead. But to get unemployment benefits he has to prove he’s looking for work, which prompts a sadly comical sequence where he goes by foot from place to place, asking if they are hiring, only to be directed somewhere else, and then directed somewhere else again, a pointless loop since, of course, he can’t even take the job if it’s offered on account of his doctor, which is just the sort of efficient synergizing the powers-that-be are always blathering about, I imagine, at corporate luncheons.
Daniel Blake is played by Dave Johns, a standup comic, and that vocation is put to deft use for the part. There is anger to Daniel Blake, sure, how could their not be, but there is also a tendency in the character to try and diffuse his increasingly agonizing situation with gallows humor. When he gets sent to a resume class he ignores the lessons to crack jokes, and the more absurd his circumstances become, the more he resorts to semi-hysterical exasperation, which Johns makes hysterical no matter how depressing the context. You see this most acutely in the moments where he is forced, as he deals with re-applying for benefits, to tangle with technology.
No doubt the government is not officially ageist, yet “I, Daniel Blake” makes clear how society’s rapid technological advance has nevertheless been inadvertently ageist. Much of what Daniel Blake has to do in order to navigate the maze of red tape is tied back to computers, with which he is either unable or unwilling to wrestle. Little acts of simply clicking a mouse become herculean and are brilliantly juxtaposed with quiet moments of him carving wooden fishes.
In the course of his travails, Daniel becomes friends with Katie (Hayley Squires), a young, desperate mother of three who wigs out in the social security office when she finds herself flummoxed by the same bureaucratic rigmarole as Daniel. If eventually her character is forced to take a hard turn toward inane melodrama, very unbecoming of this otherwise brass tacks screenplay, their relationship is nevertheless the defining quality of the film, where circumstances, regardless of age, sex, or race, force people to foster their own community just as Daniel has at his apartment complex where his neighbors a few doors down invite him around to watch football matches.
If “I, Daniel Blake” is to be believed, the system is broken and few stuck within its maddening circular nature seemingly designed to drive those who need its aid to give up on even trying for that aid. Their only recourse, really, is to fall back on one another for support, whether it’s financial or merely moral, which is what happens in the movie’s most rousing sequence where Daniel inadvertently educes a small crowd to damn-the-man cheers by a graffit-ing a direct challenge to the government on its own walls. Daniel, and everyone else, however, seem to know this won’t spark change. Loach knows it too, but it’s telling that he gives his protagonist this moment anyway.
Loach is angry, but he’s still got some love in his heart. And that, in the end, is what saves “I, Daniel Blake” from simply being a furious pity party or a simple-minded screed, even if that love does not technically save Daniel Blake himself.