I, Daniel Blake (IFC Films, R)

The lead performance and the expansion of Ken Loach’s activist mission is what gives this film the power to move.

Last year’s Palme D’Or winner at Cannes is making its way into U.S. theaters. This is the second win of the top prize by director Ken Loach, whose films often focus on poverty, classism, and the economic hardships that plague the English working class. For fans of Italian neo-realism, I, Daniel Blake resembles Vittorio de Sica’s tale of an elderly pensioner forced onto the streets in Italy’s post-war depression, Umberto D. These two films differ in time period and cultural viewpoints, but both of their titles express with urgency the importance of recognizing the humanity in individuals. Compounded with this appeal to de-generalize the masses, I, Daniel Blake also depicts the absurdities and inefficiencies of welfare systems, which often address the problems of those who use them with rigid, uncompromising policies. These guidelines are often counter-productive to the progress of people mired in poverty, and demand literacy in areas that many (especially older generations) have no experience with, offering solutions but no means to arrive at them.

Daniel Blake is a wood-worker who, due to a heart-attack on the job, cannot be cleared to work until given the go-ahead by his doctor, and yet the acceptance process for the ESA (English Support and Allowance) deems him eligible to work, and therefore withholds payment unless he applies for jobs. Having never used a computer, Blake finds the job-search process nearly impossible. Furthermore, all appeals and correspondence with the UK welfare system are done digitally. A single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires) moves into the flat next to him with her two children, herself being given unfair restrictions by the unemployment office and struggling to make ends meet. They soon become friends, and the naturally codependent Daniel (formerly the caretaker of his late, mentally ill wife) struggles to support them in addition to himself. As money circles the drain, pressure from the Jobcentre builds, and nefarious characters creep in to take advantage of our characters’ vulnerable situations, a broader picture is painted of the common inescapability of life in squalor.

English comedian Dave Johns plays the title role with a touch of puckishness well suited to the image of the cheeky, working class rogue, but mostly lets the natural expressions of his face and straight-forward quality of his voice (his eyes are remarkably sad and his voice heart-wrenchingly soft, colored with an endearing Geordie accent) do the heavy lifting of his performance. Being his feature-film debut after doing mainly comedic roles and celebrity gameshow appearances, the restraint is quite surprising, and exceeds many other performances given by comics taking that dramatic turn.

While not as daring or experimental as past winners at Cannes, I, Daniel Blake does excel at combining social realism with a vaguely classicistic, tragic narrative. The film is also edited together nicely, with black fades bookending each sequence in a style somewhat reminiscent of silent melodramas. However, the lead performance and the expansion of Ken Loach’s activist mission is what gives this film the power to move. | Nic Champion

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