Daniel Blake is a carpenter living in Newcastle, England. He’s 59 years old, he’s recently suffered a heart attack, and his doctor is concerned enough about his health that she’s ordered him not to exert himself as he recovers. A government evaluation, however, has deemed him fit for work and ineligible for disability benefits—an illogical and brutish bureaucratic decision that slowly begins to eat away at his life. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a typical slice of socio-political realism from the legendary director, but it’s tinged with an infuriating, Kafkaesque sense of humor, as Daniel tries to explain his administrative predicament to a legion of unfeeling government employees.
The film is offering a pointed take on the current state of the United Kingdom’s welfare system, one Loach believes is designed to turn people away by making it as humiliating and arcane as possible. But there’s a heightened edge to I, Daniel Blake, an embittered streak of comedy that keeps the otherwise miserable plot from weighing too heavily. Much of that is thanks to Dave Johns, the actor and stand-up comedian who plays Daniel with weary self-awareness. Almost all of Loach’s films are polemical, but the best of them present real humanity alongside their politics, and I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is one of his best movies in years.
The film caused a huge stir in the U.K., where its depiction of the country’s draconian welfare workers, and its byzantine Department for Work and Pensions, prompted debate at the highest level of government. The last time Loach made a film this explicitly focused on the current state of his country was 2010’s Route Irish (about contractors fighting in the Iraq War), and the approach gives I, Daniel Blake an immediacy that’s been lacking from some of his other recent work. The film’s action, such as it were, is focused on the job centers that Daniel must repeatedly visit to try and plead for his benefits. Meetings that could feel clinical and dull instead become strangely compelling, as they’re rooted in such horrifying authenticity.
The rules and regulations Daniel tries to confront are straight out of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 sci-fi film Brazil. His doctor says he’s sick, but the government deems him well enough to work, demanding that he immediately start looking for jobs or face sanctions on the benefits he’s entitled to. A widowed carpenter who owns a low-tech cellphone and has never used a computer, Daniel is flustered by the reams of forms he’s forced to fill out online. One particularly wrenching scene sees him trying to file an appeal on a library computer and growing increasingly frustrated as his session times out, over and over again.
If it sounds bleak and slow-moving, well, it is (this is a Ken Loach movie, and those are his specialties), but Johns’s performance has a remarkably light touch. His rage at the situation never overflows into unbelievable histrionics. His despair manifests as a sort of gallows humor, with Daniel offering a running sardonic commentary as every single civil servant he meets tells him he’s in violation of some law or regulation. Loach’s film is a sour satire in which the joke is that the real-life system has caught up with the science fiction that mocked it 30 years ago. Viewers are stunned at the things Daniel is told—that a man who just suffered a heart attack is really expected to return to the workforce—and at the same time, it’s sadly believable.
In his trips to the job center, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother of two from London who’s been moved to Newcastle by a government that can no longer afford to house the very poor in the cities they’re from. This character is where the flaws of Loach’s disputatious style are most noticeable. Squires lends a similarly soft, humane touch to Katie, but her storyline spins into more outlandish directions with less time granted to make them feel grounded. Unlike Daniel, she never transcends her symbolism, never feels like a real person, though her situation is an unfortunately common one in a country where a conservative government is trying to roll back many of the core tenets of the social safety net.
Loach’s crucial point is that Daniel’s many opponents in the Department for Work and Pensions are not monsters, merely cogs in a faulty machine. In one of I, Daniel Blake’s most telling scenes, a worker finally takes pity on Daniel as he tries to fill out a form online, hovering over his shoulder and directing him, until she is taken aside by her manager and loudly chastised. If she gives one person special attention, she’s told, then the whole system collapses—better to have unfairness for all, the implication goes. Loach makes his political points with brutal directness, but I, Daniel Blake comes at a particularly brutal time for the world, making it all the more important to see.