clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Charming 'I, Daniel Blake' is a bitter portrait of poverty in Britain

“I, DANIEL BLAKE” — 3 stars — Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy, Briana Shann, Dylan McKiernan; R (language); Broadway

“I, Daniel Blake” is a great reminder of the things we often take for granted. If you choose to see this one — and it is well worth a look — you might want to make plans to get some ice cream or something after to cheer you up.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a veteran blue-collar construction worker in Newcastle, England. A recent heart attack took him off the job, and now he’s in a bit of a Catch-22. His doctors won’t let him go back to work, but the state insists that he look for a job in order to collect his benefits.

That’s the simple way of explaining a predicament that sends Blake on a savage journey through a bureaucratic nightmare of red tape and conflicting messages. In order to cope with the barrage of necessary and arbitrary hoops, Blake must embrace a world of 21st-century technology that left him behind decades earlier.

During one aggravating visit to the employment office, Blake meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two newly arrived from London. She has plans to get work and return to school, but the system seems conspired against her as well. In spite of his problems, Blake takes Katie’s family under his wing and is soon at their place fixing the electricity and getting them on their feet.

One by one, we see Blake and Katie meet an exhausting series of disheartening obstacles. Blake has to wait nearly two hours on the phone just to hear the same runaround he gets in face-to-face encounters. Katie goes to the local food bank and nearly has a nervous breakdown because she’s been giving her kids all of her food. Blake gets a job interview, has to turn it down because his doctors don’t want him to work and gets chewed out by the recruiter. Katie gets busted for shoplifting, and when a security guard offers her some off-the-record help, it makes things even worse.

All these setbacks would make “I, Daniel Blake” an insufferable, miserable experience were it not for its charming cast and the tiny victories along the way. Blake is a down-to-earth, profane and ultimately relatable old coot, and it’s heartwarming to see him interact with his neighbor, a young kid who has devised a plan for selling expensive athletic shoes direct from the factory through a secret wholesaler. (The scene that explains the film’s title is also memorable, but won’t be spoiled here.)

For all of its oppressive narrative, and its heavy man-versus-system theme, director Ken Loach also manages to send a hopeful message. All through “I, Daniel Blake,” various characters — including Blake himself — reach out to help the people around them. Most of the time the state employees are strapped automatons hiding behind policy, but here and there, true humanity emerges in the form of a sympathetic ear or an employee who you sense truly wants to do the right thing. Blake and Katie are thrown together by the worst of circumstances, but it is encouraging to see them extend themselves to each other selflessly, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

The sad thing is, too often, these selfless gestures are not enough. “I, Daniel Blake” is a vivid portrait of poverty in Britain, and an indictment of the systems we hide behind, even if it doesn’t take much time to consider the source of anyone’s individual problems. Its best message may be to remind viewers that if they offer a little human compassion, they may get it back when they find themselves in need of it.

“I, Daniel Blake” is rated R for language; running time: 100 minutes.