Some nightmares play out in ornate and stylized fashion, while others are categorized by a slow drip of disasters and frustrations. “I, Daniel Blake,” the new movie from Ken Loach, locates itself squarely within the latter category.
It finds its horrors in the bureaucracy, the Sisyphean task of clearing a path through a muck of referred phone calls, reams of paperwork, conflicting diagnoses and the constant insistence that a man who has never touched a computer “go online” to solve life-and-death problems. And it finds heartbreak in the consequences.
Loach, a master of social realism who has made a career out of chronicling the struggles of the United Kingdom’s dispossessed, works from a screenplay by longtime collaborator Paul Laverty that provides him with a consummate template to address the larger failures of the system that have animated his life.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) can’t go back to work as a carpenter in Newcastle after a heart attack — his doctor worries of an arrhythmia — but the government determines that he’s eligible to work and therefore can’t qualify for benefits. He befriends single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), whom he watches lose her own benefits after she shows up late to a meeting about them.
They provide each other with the comfort and support that’s sorely missing from the government that’s supposed to protect them and a society at large that seems thoroughly unmoved by their plight.
The movie directly engages with the specifics of the UK system, with what appears to be little heightening or exaggeration, and surely plays with a particular sense of urgency across the pond. To a viewer unfamiliar with the particulars of how one seeks out a Jobseekers Allowance, for example, some of the impact is lost.
But you don’t need to understand every last detail to admire the performances — particularly the ways pride and shame intertwine in Johns’ and Squires’ work — or to appreciate the filmmaker’s eye for extracting humanist drama out of seemingly ordinary circumstances.