Film and TV

Neorealist Jewel I, Daniel Blake Slices the Systems That Crush Us

Sure, we've all gotten desensitized to screen violence, but that doesn't mean we can't be shocked. Ken Loach's quietly furious I, Daniel Blake will likely jolt you with its depiction of a different kind of killing: the paperwork, on-hold music and long-wait rigmarole a widowed English woodworker endures while trying to secure the benefits he’s due after a heart attack. The setting is Newcastle, and the wheels that grind him are the National Health's, but the awed frustration translates. Loach is taking aim at all bureaucracies whose impersonal character is for the bureaucrats more feature than bug. It's not the overworked "healthcare professional" sitting across from Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) who is denying the claim he's entitled to — it's the point-system questionnaire that she hands him whose hands truly are dirty.

Blake gets caught in a perfectly stupid (and conveniently money-saving) healthcare loophole: After his heart attack, his doctors say he shouldn't work, but the questionnaire — and, later, a "decision maker" he can't get an appointment with — concludes that he can work and therefore is ineligible for the Employment and Support Allowance he needs to survive. When Blake attempts to appeal, he loses 100 minutes on the phone to light classics and recorded assurances that he'll be connected to someone soon.

The film (which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) opens with Blake and one functionary bickering over that questionnaire. Loach often lets us soak in soiling confrontations, in humiliating encounters in government offices and libraries, shot and performed with matter-of-fact naturalism. Blake is told he must go online to fill out the paperwork needed to file his appeal, and the only computer he has access to is in a library, and this tech novice must ask the staff and some strangers for help, a sequence I kept flinching away from. (I, Daniel Blake might inspire you to vow always to make friends with people much younger than you, to help you out when the world changes.)

Once in a while, someone is nice to him and helps out, which sometimes leads to trouble — what little efficiency bureaucracies manage depends upon not taking time with Daniel Blakes. And once in a while, Blake fights back, most movingly when he witnesses a broke single mother getting denied help for having been late to an appointment. Blake dresses down the government workers, and soon he's booted from the office, with the woman and her children. That turns out to be a boon, though: The mom, Katie (Hayley Squires), befriends him, lets him do some fixing-up around her flat and movingly demonstrates that hard times demand we treat each other with open hearts. A scene of Katie sneaking a bite from a tin can she's just been handed by the volunteers at a food pantry is among 2016's most moving.

While Blake presses his case with the bureaucrats, Katie is tempted toward the desperate life choices that the movies have warned young women against since the first silent melodramas. Loach treats this like every other choice his people make as they try to survive in the margins. She does what she has to, and who are you to judge her? Neorealism lives: It's rare that a film this angry is also this empathetic, this warm, this moving, this given to silence and companionship.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl