‘I, Daniel Blake’ movie review

Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is one of those rare films that fights for the little guy.  For anyone who has been unemployed or frustrated with bureaucratic red tape, will certainly find solace in this indie gem.  Director Ken Loach is a masterful storyteller when it comes to pointing out the struggles and social ills of the downtrodden working class.  In this case, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ reminds us that an institution like Britain’s welfare system is designed around the assumption that the claimants don’t deserve the benefits they apply for.  It’s a rigged system that simply wears down a man trying to survive and keep his dignity.  ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a powerful film that forces you to think about how you would cope under similar circumstances.  This provocative film demands to be seen.

In the opening seconds, we see a blank screen and hear a man being asked a bunch of questions to assess the condition of his health.  The man being questioned is Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old widowed carpenter from Newcastle who is recovering from a heart attack.  Unable to work, a government healthcare agent is determining his eligibility for disability benefits.  Daniel cannot help but answer the ridiculous questions with a bit of humor.  Thus begins his nightmarish journey through the bureaucratic nonsense that sets up well-intentioned people for failure.  It gets worse.  Failing the hearing, his unemployment benefits are taken away and the state insists he returns to work even though his doctor prohibits it.  He’s forced to take a resume workshop class and confront his lack of computer literacy.  Not knowing how to use a computer mouse, he literally moves it across the monitor.

While Daniel is in the welfare office waiting room, he notices Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother of two being denied a meeting after arriving late for her appointment.  Daniel objects to the way she is treated and they are both asked to leave the office.  This is where the story gets poignant.  Two unfortunate souls are brought together to support each other through this trying time in their lives.  Daniel finds out that Katie was forced to leave her home in London because of the high cost of living there and relocate her family to Newcastle where she has no support network.  As they platonically bond, Katie does whatever it takes to provide food on the table for her kids.   In one heartbreaking scene, she goes to a local food bank and rips open a can of beans to stave off her hunger. It’s a moving performance by Squires who is absolutely convincing as a mom who will go to any length to protect her kids from abject poverty.

Loach’s filmmaking style shoots from the hip, but it effectively shows the injustices of a broken system.  This is a socially relevant drama especially with Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.  Daniel symbolizes a working-class hero.  In one powerful scene without revealing too much, he is allowed a dramatic rally cry to the cheers from onlookers.  With a masterful script by Paul Laverty and standout performances by Johns and Squires, it is no surprise ‘I, Daniel Blake’ walked away with the top prize at 2016’s Cannes Film Festival.  This is one of those rare political dramas that will linger with you after exiting the theater.  It’s essentially about treating fellow citizens down on their luck with human decency.  U.S. viewers will be able to relate to the humiliating process of qualifying for government assistance.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a gripping and heart-wrenching tale about a common man fighting to keep his dignity.  Even if you have never experienced the terrifying reality of long-term unemployment, this film is worth your time. It reminds us all that it is society’s duty to assist those that fall on hard times. Don’t miss ‘I, Daniel Blake’ when it plays at your local arthouse cinema.

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