If Americans can’t respond to the politics of the Palme D’Or winning “I, Daniel Blake” as strongly as the Brits, they’ll still be able to appreciate its emotional wallop. Director Ken Loach has spent his life in film defending the poor, working class by championing human fortitude and decency. And by taking on the worst form of inane bureaucracy, something that Republican or Democrat, Green, Labor or Conservative have all found frustrating, he’s told a story that’s as funny as it is heart wrenching.
We first hear a frustrated Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) impatiently fielding invasive questions about his health to a faceless bureaucrat with a voice so blandly calm it sounds like a recording. His doctor says he’s not fit for work, but the government says he’s fine. Daniel’s caught in limbo: unable to work but also unable to receive benefits.
We hear stories like this in the US, and in Trump’s America it’s anyone’s guess as to whether someone could find empathy for this person. “I, Daniel Blake” however is very specific to Britain, exposing a convoluted system that should inspire as much debate as sentiment.
But Daniel’s an elderly man, and he’s clearly spent his life hard at work as a talented carpenter and craftsman. He’s bristly, curt and no-nonsense, the kind of guy who you think would be borderline racist and offensive, but his harshness underscores a compassionate individual. He meets a younger, single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires) and sympathizes with her similar frustration at the government and inability to get assistance despite her tireless efforts.
“I, Daniel Blake” successfully forges empathy amid political differences because Loach lasers into tiny details about Daniel and Katie’s lives. After spending hours on the phone and getting nowhere, Daniel drags himself into a government office only to be told that the only way to file for his application is online. He’s never touched a computer in his life, and what at first may seem silly and pathetic becomes highly specific and realistic. A boy explains Daniel has to move his mouse, and he moves it in midair in front of the monitor with no success. When he finally completes the online form, he finds his session has timed out.
This stuff seems obvious and maybe not so bad at first glance, but Loach finds a way to empathize with someone truly in need, to make this moment plausible. And what starts as levity turns to devastation later. At one point Daniel brings Katie and her kids to a food bank. A personal shopper shows her around, and Loach’s camera politely keeps its distance. We slowly see Katie inching into a corner, trying to hide from even herself, as she rips open a can of vegetables and desperately starts to eat them bare handed before collapsing in tears.
Whatever your politics you’ll walk away with a scathing indictment of the State, but also emotionally wrecked. “I, Daniel Blake” is as noble and sincere as a Frank Capra classic, and no less of a tearjerker.
3 ½ stars