There’s an added poignancy, the wince of too-familiar recognition in seeing “I, Daniel Blake” in the midst of a pandemic-caused global depression.
This Palme d’Or winner from Cannes a couple of years back is a sort of ultimate UK “kitchen sink” melodrama. A working man with 40 years experience in construction and woodworking, sidelined by a heart attack, trapped in a hostile Catch-22 of conservative social safety net destruction.
Dave Johns buries himself in the title role, all thick Newcastle-on-Tyne working class accent, a bluff “Don’t cry for me” widower who is told by one doctor he can’t go back to work, and is undercut by another faceless medical bureaucrat that he must go back.
But to where? Pushing 60, listening to one doctor’s advice, unable to draw disability because of another, unable to draw unemployment unless he’s computer savvy enough to fill out all the forms and meticulous enough to document and “prove” every application for work, Daniel is Exhibit A in what’s been done to “the welfare state.”
He’s stuck grousing with short-tempered guards at social services, the “good cop” counselor Ann (Kate Rutter) and the “bad cop” Sheila (Sharon Percy).
And that’s after he’s gone through the on-hold hell of trying to get a bloody appointment.
Circular logic attacks him at every turn — humiliating interrogations covering the same facts that he’s filled out on forms.
“It’s me f—–g heart!”
Every manner of “I can’t help you unless you fill this out online…”
“Give me a plot’a land and I can build you a HOUSE,” he gripes. Computers? “I’m dyslexic, where they’re concerned.”
He has too much time on his hands, yelling at neighbors who don’t clean up after their dogs, good-naturedly ribbing the knock-off sneakers-dealing neighbor (Kema Sikazwe) who has packages left at Daniel’s door and not his own.
Daniel collects scraps from his old workplace to carve into decor or saw into shelving. But his real purpose doesn’t arrive until he sees the even greater outrage heaped on poor Katie (BAFTA nominee Hayley Squires), a single mom new to town and getting the “I’m sorry” runaround from the same functionaries who are driving Daniel mad.
He makes himself useful, fixing up her apartment, watching her kids as she struggles to find work.
Ken Loach has made a career out of these working class/underclass stories, films from “Kes” and “Bread and Roses” to the recent “Sorry We Missed You.” Films on leftist themes such as Republicans fight in the Spanish Civil War, Irish struggling against British occupation and the like pepper his resume as well.
“Daniel Blake” is simple right to the edge of simplistic, but never crossing that line, focusing on the man struggling to his feet against a faceless system.
We only see the functionaries Daniel must contend with, dogmatic “Just doing my job” types. He never gets his day with the doctor and bureaucrats who gummed up his legitimate disability claim. He never gets past the cubicle clones.
It’s a touching story, and a deflating one. And Johns (“Fishermen’s Friends”) makes Daniel Blake Everyman and Everywoman, stoic and hard-working, overwhelmed by a system that’s been rigged to prevent claims, to make the “safety net” not all that safe at all.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast:Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy and Kema Sikazwe
Credits: Directed by Ken Loach and Laura Obiols, script by Paul Laverty. A Sundance Selects release on Netflix, Amazon etc.
Running time: 1:40