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Review: 'I, Daniel Blake'

Cannes hit performs welfare check on Britain's frayed safety net
An elderly carpenter and a single mother comfort each other as they navigate a broken social welfare system in 'I, Daniel Blake.'

Ken Loach's bruising neo-realist I, Daniel Blake ponders the way poor-shaming is built into the system. Fifty-nine-year-old widower Daniel (Dave Johns, who looks like an older, sadder Bill Burr) was a carpenter before he had a heart attack that knocked him right off his scaffold. Over the titles, he's interrogated by phone by the British equivalent of workers' comp, being asked personal questions about his health, his continence and his ability to type.

Ultimately, he only has 12 out of the 15 points necessary to get disability.

On to Job Seeker's Allowance—unemployment insurance. The money is contingent on his seeking a desk job in one of England's worst job markets, the former shipbuilding town of Newcastle upon Tyne. Daniel is digitally useless: "With computers, I'm dyslexic." While entering his information the only way it can be accepted, as an online form, Daniel swears at the keyboard: "Cursor! Fucking apt name for it."

He goes through a risible yet mandatory job resume workshop, led by a suit-clad salesperson—John Sumner, comic as one of those Dwight Schrute types who like to precede every statement with a shouted out "FACT!" Daniel befriends a new neighbor in the same boat, Katie (Hayley Squires). She was kicked out of her soon-to-be-privatized public housing in London, 250 miles away. London councils have been shipping public housing denizens north to cities where the real estate market is less hot.

Katie is a believable kind of single mom, wary of being indebted to anyone, even someone as harmless as Daniel. He eases her mind, watching her children. He shows her a few poor-person tricks: a flower pot and candle turned into a room heater, taped up bubble-wrap insulation for when the heat's turned off because of an unpayable 391 bill.

This neo-documentary film is at its keenest depicting Katie's shame when she goes to a food bank. A helper's "Anything else you want?" is pronounced in a way that means, "You've taken your share already." Katie helplessly rips into a can of food—she's starving from having skipped meals so her kids could eat. Daniel tries to calm her when she breaks down in tears, reminding her that it's not her fault that she's poor.

In America, we feel it is indeed your fault. And in this valley, there's little patience with people who can't seem to become computer literate: tough for them. Even a movie this lucid might not convince conservatives, and some scenes simplify Daniel and Katie's plight into melodrama. Circumstances propel Katie into some very unpleasant work, and she's caught at it by her new friend. I didn't believe this development for a second. In a funeral scene we're reminded of the nature of the tragedy, as if we hadn't just seen it played out before us.

Blake's north British gentleness makes this rough to watch—it's like seeing Wallace from the Aardman cartoons being put through the wringer by cold bureaucrats. But the meekness and kindness and details of conversational British language give you hope. Keenest of all is a moment of triumph, a great laugh when Blake finally rebels against his austerity-minded torturers. He gets some public revenge for all the hours he spent on hold on a pay-as-you-go mobilel phone, listening to stupid fiddling Vivaldi. (Hold music will teach you to loathe "The Four Seasons.") Revelers and passersby cheer Daniel on as, perhaps for the first time in his life, the old man breaks the law.

George Orwell once commented "to see what is in front of your nose requires constant struggle". That struggle is easier, these days. Governmental attacks on the poor are so obvious that even the slickest Ayn Rand bamboozlers in Congress fail to blind their victims.

Seeing what's in front of your nose is one problem. Loach's problem is slightly different: how do you dramatize something that happens every day, so that it'll look, believably, like something that happens every day? Loach's half-century long efforts in his many films about the working class haven't always succeeded, but he's always tried. For the most part, this time he's succeeded beautifully.

I, Daniel Blake
Unrated, 100 min.
Opens Friday at the Camera cinemas


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