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I, Daniel Blake

February 17, 2018

I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Director: Ken Loach
Actors: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann

Synopsis: Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old tradesman, is stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire when he’s deemed ineligible for disability benefit after a heart attack, yet, because he’s appealing the decision, he has to give up his right to claim jobseeker’s allowance.

Review: The usual delights and foibles are here in Ken Loach’s latest socialist paean, I, Daniel Blake. Alas, much like other veteran directors with a clear formula (Woody Allen comes immediately to mind), Loach’s work is becoming increasingly recognisable for its slapdash quality and his evident lack of interest in the properties of his medium and the worth of complex and subtle storytelling.

As much as I sympathise wholeheartedly with Loach’s political sensibilities, I, Daniel Blake‘s shallowness, twee sensibility, and – at times – transparent polemicising make for an unchallenging viewing experience. Of course, naturally over a 100-minute running time, there are going to be one or two moments where the director settles upon the more fertile areas of their subject matter (ironically, in the case of I, Daniel Blake, it’s usually when the actors aren’t voicing Paul Laverty’s dialogue). The slog and the quietude of the shot that tracks the immensity of the foodbank queue speaks volumes for the sheer sense of scandal that a scene like this could be taking place on the streets of a UK city. The stretch where the eponymous Daniel Blake is forced to go to a CV workshop is also one of Loach’s cannier imaginings. He avoids the easy option of caricaturing the scene and villainising the man giving the seminar, to hint at the stultifying truth that this is a box-ticking exercise nobody really wants to be at.

Sadly, the dramaturgical tapestry of the piece feels much less convincing. Although families can be shunted to different parts of the country through shortfalls in social housing, the whole conceit regarding Hayley Squires’ single mum, Katie, and her young family winding up all the way in Newcastle from their London base feels inorganically shoehorned in for political commentary purposes. Casting is also an issue here, as the young daughter appears jarringly middle-class and preternaturally mature with the wisened monologues Laverty has given her. The scene where Katie frantically downs a tin of Baked Beans in the foodhall is marginally too melodramatic and pathos-ridden, and Loach wraps the final act up far too abruptly with two transparent speechifying moments where Daniel graffitis his situation on the wall of the job centre and Katie reads a suspiciously articulate speech of Daniel’s to close the film out.

Cinema is allowed to be political and persuasive, but strength of ideology and sophistication of storytelling needn’t be mutually exclusive concepts: one can inform the other. (February 2018)


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