Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan Mckiernan, Briana Shann, Kate Rutter, Shannon Percy, Kema Sikazwe
Director: Ken Loach
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Ken Loach is back after an apparently short-lived retirement with the Palm d'Or-winning I, Daniel Blake; another scrappy blue-collar drama in the tradition of what brought him notoriety at the start of his career. On the surface, the film does seem to play into his early penchant for social realist tragedy, but unlike pictures such Kes and Riff-Raff, I, Daniel Blake leans closer to recent output like The Angel's Share and Jimmy's Hall, earnest but painfully simplistic dramas which veered into speechifying. Clearly, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (who also penned 1998's My Name is Joe and 2002's Sweet Sixteen) have their hearts in the right place, but the results are a scattershot display of social activism disguised as compelling drama.
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns stars as the titular Daniel Blake, a man fighting against the well fare board following a heart attack and a doctors recommendation to stop working. Like a lot of Loach protagonists, Daniel is a hard-working bloke put through the ringer of bureaucracy simply to earn a liveable wage, and being a non-actor, Johns is able to convey an unpredictable energy and rhythm that benefits Loach's keen eye for lived-in details. Scenes of Daniel dealing with heartless government workers stuck in a broken system is sad, but also humorous in the way he often mouths off or simply refuses to cave into the demands of procedure. Unfortunately, despite Johns's affable performance, Loach and Laverty portray nearly every government employee as mean-spirited villains, culminating in more than a few instances of grandstanding emotional manipulation as Daniel metaphorically and literally, flips off "the man".
There's also another character introduced in the form of single mother of two, Kattie (Haley Squires), whose well fare claim is rejected in a truly callous scene where the agent berates and eventually throws her out onto the street. Squires is very good in the role, and she has one truly great scene at a food bank that's legitimately heart-breaking, but her character is used as a prism for which to view the hallowed goodness of Daniel Blake. In one particularly unconvincing development, Kattie turns to prostitution in order to provide for her family, only to have Daniel track her down in order to set her on the right path. A more thoughtful, nuanced film would have given Kattie an interior life and dreams of her own. Sadly, she is completely sidelined during the third act, only reappearing briefly to eulogize on behalf of another fallen victim of the system.
I, Daniel Blake lacks the naturalistic realism of early Loach films, even as aesthetically, it seems to be aping that style for maximum dramatic effect. Johns and Squires deliver believably gritty performances, but the script strands them on top of a soap box with only a megaphone and "fuck the system" sound bites. Rage is justified and a blunt instrument can even lead to change, but Loach loses sight of his ultimate message by graffiti-tagging the wall with maudlin sentiments rather than exploring more than one side of the argument.