Ken Loach's I, DANIEL BLAKE
"Loach still wields an agitator’s ardent camera."
"I’ve seen nearly twenty of his films, and I must confess to a bit of trouble in keeping them from blurring together in my mind," writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. "The English director’s resolute dedication to working-class struggles has endured for five decades, and a recognizable tenor of activist outrage has long emerged. But consistency does not equal roteness, and the familiarity of his scenarios is almost always charged with battered urgency and salted with biting humor. Pushing 80 now, Loach still wields an agitator’s ardent camera."
In his report from Cannes for Film Comment, NYFF director Kent Jones notes that "a very Ken Loach movie within the context of the current moment is quite different from very Ken Loach movies of earlier eras. The director and his longtime scenarist Paul Laverty have zeroed in on a situation that should resonate in the United States almost as deeply as it will in the UK: the lone individual caught in the gears of an increasingly privatized support system that is maddeningly byzantine and, as a byproduct of its attempted efficiency, casually authoritarian."
"When we meet Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), he’s arguing with a man at the welfare office," writes Scout Tafoya in Brooklyn Magazine. "He’s had a heart attack and his doctor has advised him not to work. The government’s own doctor has deemed him fit to return to work, and so they won’t pay him unemployment unless he proves he’s out looking for a new job that he can’t accept because his doctor told him not to work. So he has to fill out three forms to prove he can’t work, but that’s he actively searching for the work he can’t perform, and in order to do this he has to use a computer, which he hasn’t got and doesn’t know how to use anyway. Welcome to the bureaucratic nightmare that is Ken Loach’s England, a place of paperwork, smothered dreams and honest folk driven to madness and violence because the way forward’s been bricked off."
Sam C. Mac for Slant: "English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that's consistently made Loach's films worth keeping up with; few filmmakers are as good at workshopping a character, essentially just preferring actors to play themselves, and convincingly so, in a fictional setting."
"Partly a cranky protest against the tyranny of technology…, the film suggests that some of the political anger of our moment stems less from reactionary intolerance than from a stubborn and defensive humanism," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times.
And Flavorwire's Jason Bailey assures us that I, Daniel Blake is "not the downer it could’ve easily been; in fact, it finds moments of levity in his quest, and its frustrations."
The Guardian's put together a remarkable feature gathering responses to the film from journalist Yvonne Roberts, poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs Mark Littlewood, artist Gavin Turk, actor Daniel Mays, a mother of an autistic three-year-old, living in a one-bedroom London council flat, Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham, Evening Standard columnist Melanie McDonagh and designer Agnès B.
Update, 10/2: "In I, Daniel Blake, Loach and Laverty ensure that the primary focus of the film’s emotional narrative is not on the iniquities of the welfare system, because it really doesn’t need to be," writes Julien Allen for Reverse Shot—though we should add that Allen doesn't an excellent job of explaining in prior paragraphs just how those iniquities came to be. "Having angrily established the foundation stone of injustice, the film stays on Daniel’s coping strategies and in particular on his avuncular friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mother on unemployment benefits, whose spiky attitude in the social security office earns her a 'sanction': her benefits are stopped, ostensibly because she was late to her appointment, having just moved into the area from London and not knowing her way around on public transport. I, Daniel Blake is a film not about injustice (which we can all read about), but about hardship (which we don’t) and how its victims cope with it."
Update, 10/4: "It’s hard to imagine a movie hewing more closely to any reasonable person’s preconceptions, for better or worse, depending on your tolerance for the kind of movie that you rightly suspect this one is," writes Jon Dieringer at Screen Slate. "Although it’s natural to sympathize with the characters—at the very least, Daniel’s experience of the London unemployment office stirred pangs of transnational recognition and solidarity in this viewer—I, Daniel Blake couldn’t possibly be more didactic and heavy handed."
Update, 10/7: "Loach has named de Sica's Bicycle Thieves (along with The Battle of Algiers and Loves of a Blonde) as the inspiration for his long career," notes Elina Alter at BOMB, "but he updates a different de Sica here: like the increasingly desperate Umberto D., bald, widowed carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is losing the ability to support himself…. Like Daniel himself, who builds pretty mobiles of wooden fishes (it's the only model he knows), Loach and Laverty have an appreciation of sturdy detail. They commit to showing the tedious and crucial rituals of poverty."
Updates, 10/16: Bert Rebhandl for frieze: "From Ladybird, Ladybird (1993) to his latest film I, Daniel Blake (2016), runs a thread of skepticism: institutions designed to help people have become rationalizing agents, shielding deleterious abstract procedures from those that are forced to go through them." Paul Laverty "is at his best in turning the technocratic lingo of the desk people into Leviathanesque oracles, often referring to an ominous ‘decision maker’ whose redemptive call never seems to get through to poor Daniel."
Simon Hattenstone profiles Loach for the Guardian: "'Angry? Mmmmmmm,' Loach says so quietly it barely registers. He talks about the people he and his regular writer Paul Laverty met while doing their research: the young lad with nothing in his fridge who hadn’t eaten properly for three days; the woman ashamed of attending food banks; the man told to queue for a casual shift at 5.30am, then sent home an hour later because he wasn’t needed. 'That constant humiliation to survive. If you’re not angry about it, what kind of person are you?'"
Updates, 10/24: "I have lived these lives," writes Jack Monroe in the Guardian. "Crashing from £27,000-a-year in a public service job to piles of brown envelopes, refusing to answer the door, turning off the fridge and unscrewing the light bulbs. I was Daniel Blake. I was his friend, Katie Morgan. My story has been told to a Conservative party conference event so packed in 2013 that the doors were propped open and delegates stood in the corridor. A standing ovation, a patronizing pat for my 'bravery,' but a sociopathic disconnect between the votes they cast and the nights my son and I went to bed hungry."
"For all its raw anger at the impersonal mistreatment of a single mother and an ailing widower in depressed but resilient Newcastle," writes the Observer's Mark Kermode, "Paul Laverty’s brilliantly insightful script finds much that is moving (and often surprisingly funny) in the unbreakable social bonds of so-called 'broken Britain.' Blessed with exceptional lead performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, Loach crafts a gut-wrenching tragicomic drama (about 'a monumental farce') that blends the timeless humanity of the Dardenne brothers’ finest works with the contemporary urgency of Loach’s own 1966 masterpiece Cathy Come Home."
Update, 11/6: An update from Michael Koresky in the new issue of Film Comment: "In October, the U.K. government announced changes in the way it processes recipients of Employment and Support Allowances, saying they would no longer have to go through multiple assessment tests to maintain their benefits: a positive development, if only a first step. Loach’s film has been a public talking point in the discussions that led to these reforms. For Loach, who came out of apparent retirement because he felt so driven to tell this story, such real-world results are a clear triumph. That plus a Palme d’Or, and maybe the social-realist drama will be back in vogue."
Update, 12/8: For Newsweek, Tufayel Ahmed asks Ken Loach whether he'd consider meeting British Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss the hurdles to access government assistance as depicted in I, Daniel Blake: "I think we’d need a lot of persuading to go. She knows what she’s doing. There’s no convincing them. We’ve just got to beat them. We have to defeat them, not talk to them."
Updates, 12/14: "There is something thrilling about Loach’s dedication to exposing the horror and mind-numbing pointlessness of bureaucracy with as little drama as possible," writes A.S. Hamrah in n+1. "Audiences are supposedly always looking for something relatable. Loach has identified the last universal subject: filling out forms online. The anger the film generates shuts off delight in entertainment, an exemplary side effect of the film’s agenda."
Writing for Brooklyn Magazine, Michael Joshua Rowin is "not sure I, Daniel Blake passes the 'mightn’t this be better as good as a newspaper article?' test for erstwhile message pictures that attack a social issue from a single angle. Yes, Loach brings the issue to life by nurturing moving performances from a relatively green cast… But the film also follows an incredibly predictable narrative line that leaves little room for complexity or surprise. Like so many of its kind, I, Daniel Blake often feels more like a diagram than a film."
Update, 12/19: "Loach has been making variations on this film for decades, though he’s never focused quite this squarely on health care," writes Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "His not-so-secret weapon here is Johns, who makes Daniel Blake a distinctive, somewhat prickly character who’s also so intensely relatable that it’s impossible not to feel for him…. Problem is, Loach is still working with screenwriter Paul Laverty, his constant collaborator for the past 20 years, and Laverty has an unfortunate tendency to get ludicrously didactic in the home stretch."
Updates, 12/21: "This fall, the government announced that it will finally relax the requirement that people with severe conditions must keep repeating the Work Capability Assessment—the test that begins the film—in part because it is thought to have led to a number of suicides (a research finding the Department of Work and Pensions disputes) and partly, perhaps, because of the 'I, Daniel Blake effect,'" notes June Thomas at Slate. "If Daniel Blake had an American cousin, he’d be even worse off, of course, since Britain’s National Health Service at least takes care of English Dan’s medical needs. That makes the movie even more powerful and necessary over here. In a country where the system promises so much less, a man’s dignity is even more precious."
Jonathan Romney for Film Comment: "I, Daniel Blake deserves its Cannes win; it’s one of the most moving films of the year, and a politically urgent one. It’s also one of the director’s recent best. I speak as one who has sometimes grudgingly admired Loach’s films; who has sometimes felt bored by them or awkwardly preached at; and who has often been very much affected while wishing there just was a bit more cinema to them."
"Neorealism lives," writes Alan Scherstuhl in the Voice. "It's rare that a film this angry is also this empathetic, this warm, this moving, this given to silence and companionship."
For Interview, Emma Brown talks with Johns about working with Loach: "There are times you don't feel like you're making a movie; you forget that the camera is there. They are the best moments when you forget."
Update, 12/29: For the Voice, Bilge Ebiri talks with Loach "about how he finds his subjects, how his films have changed and (of course) cinema in the age of Trump."