Step one: create likable characters. Step two: put them through the wringer. These are by no means an absolute, but they’re some of the most basic tenets of dramatic storytelling, and they find themselves at their most functional in I, Daniel Blake, a film that earned Ken Loach his second Palme d’Or. It’s an overt piece, though one completely assured in its overtness, navigating material that even the slightest missed note might pull toward the wrong side of preachy. In that, it succeeds admirably, even if it never quite excels.
The movie is, from start to finish, pretty much fine. It puts across exactly the message it hopes to, an aged-up version of Kitchen-sink realism that turns its angst directly towards the British welfare system, and it does so through two elements that feel like its most accomplished: the performances of Dave Johns and Hayley Squires. Johns, known to most as a standup comedian, plays the eponymous Blake, an Employment and Support Allowance seeker touching sixty, unable to work due to aortic arrhythmia. Diagnosed as unfit by his doctor yet deemed arbitrarily ‘capable’ by a government professional, his only monetary recourse is Jobseekers Allowance, which as its title suggests, won’t be granted to him unless he’s on the constant hunt for jobs despite his heart preventing him from doing them.
What’s more, Blake enters this cyclical government rigmarole as a man left behind by the digital age. A mid-twentieth century workman unfamiliar with the devices of the twenty-first, unable to avail of phone or print alternatives in a world where even those require an internet connection first. Whilst being given the go-around at a local government office, he crosses paths with single mother Katie and her young, mixed race son and daughter, an out-of-work homeless family unable to afford life in metropolitan London, strangers to his hometown of Newcastle. Katie (playwright Hayley Squires) is caught in a similar loop. On the bench and under the boot-heels of bureaucracy, they form an unlikely friendship along the lines of surrogate father and daughter, with Blake helping out around her house and Katie cooking meals for him in return.
That’s as simple a setup as one could ask for, especially when underscored by hard-hitting realist performances that provide us windows into Blake and Katie’s interior lives. The plot is motionless by design, leaving its characters trapped in a limbo of red-tape and faux-politeness that they escape from momentarily through each others’ company. Squires’ masks the weight of Katie’s desperation with maternal resolve, a façade that cracks in a particularly affecting scene during her first trip to a food bank. And while the characters’ decisions might stray towards what one might call “misery porn,” they’re balanced out by Blake’s refusal to let himself be a victim, with Johns providing an old-world, stoically masculine gravitas that feels like Blake’s only available response in the face of insurmountable hardship.
Blake is a fun character to spend time with, though. He’s caring even when his anger gets the best of him (his run-ins with his young neighbor are a particular treat, as he’s introduced to the world of online sneaker piracy!), and he provides the touch of levity needed for material that wants you to wallow in its misery. Perhaps the film’s unembellished simplicity works to its detriment, providing pre-determined answers where planting questions might come in handy, but it’s a work with clearly established goals and a warm sense of intimacy (aided by a tightrope-walk of an on-set sound mix, making whispers and rustling attire feel like warmth itself), allowing for just enough investment. Just enough.
Even in his helplessness, Daniel Blake rebels in whatever small way he can, a defiant defacing of the office exterior belonging to government servants refusing to help him. It’s the kind of gesture that pales in comparison to, say, a scene of rioting against uniformed agents of fascism, but it’s a triumphant disruption to a system that values order over livelihood, and it feels like the perfect punctuation.
Sometimes simplicity is enough.