Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner is a heart-wrenching piece of social melodrama.
If the Palme d’Or, the grand prize from the Cannes Film Festival, means anything it’s that the recipient will surely be one of the saddest films of the year. I, Daniel Blake is Ken Loach’s drama that centers itself around the UK unemployment crisis and it certainly is up for the challenge.
The film opens to the sounds of a frustrated Daniel Blake, communicating as best he can to the medical professional helping him that what’s wrong is with his heart. Daniel has been a construction worker his whole life, but now his health sees him unfit for work for the time being, forcing him to go on welfare. Complications ensue and we find Daniel Blake widowed, nearly 60, and unemployed in a world of technology he hasn’t yet bothered to understand. And why should he?
Daniel Blake is a man furiously trying to live in the past. Short with nearly every Government employee he meets, but willing to shoot the sh*t with his young entrepreneurial neighbors, Daniel belongs to a generation passed. Paul Laverty has scribed a character who is abrasive, but garners true sympathy. Dave Johns’ performance makes the man immediately likable.
The biggest standout performance is not Johns, though he does a wonderful job, but Hayley Squires. Daniel meets Katie (Squires) in a welfare office where she and her two kids are being rejected help for being five minutes late. Daniel Blake, being both a man of the people and a bit of a ruckus, makes a scene and a new friend in the process. This relationship is never quite boiled down or simplified. The two help each other out with their respective problems but both realize they must traverse the same path and it is a difficult one.
It is easy to view the film’s plot and character elements are two separate moving parts. The unemployment crisis sets a stage for Daniel, Katie and the kids’ suffering. Yet, this makes up for half the film and it is the side of the film that seems all too socially relevant. Applicable to anyone, even (especially) those living in America, the themes of an unhelpful, authoritarian government sounds like the fiction of one-hundred years ago. Orwell and Huxley are channeled and brought to real life here, and as we live in a nation fearing the future of our government, I, Daniel Blake reminds us that in many senses the dark future is upon us. Do not despair, for Daniel — despite the overwhelming feeling of being left behind — fights the good fight. Perhaps all those who fight the good fight cannot help but feel left behind in nations as cold and unfeeling as those we inhabit.
I, Daniel Blake grounds itself in the complete realness of human drama. It is a Shakespearean tragedy. From the onset it is clear neither of the two will be able to solve all the other’s problems. Real people simply have too many. The film asks is it worth it to try? Is companionship in the face of certain doom worth the effort? Does it require courage or simply a lack of foresight? I, Daniel Blake doesn’t answer these questions, but builds itself to a finale that does not merely anguish in the futility of it all, but inspires hope, and urges us all to be at our best when at our lowest.
The film will have its United States premiere at the New York Film Festival.