If you’re a regular observer of the Cannes Film Festival you’ll usually notice that there are certain pet filmmakers that seem to be able to get their films into the main competition pretty much every time they make one and regardless of whether it’s actually a particularly strong effort on their part. I’m thinking specifically of filmmakers like Nanni Moretti who Cannes seems to stand by even after they’re relevance has pretty clearly waned. The king of this phenomenon has of course been none other than Britain’s most revered social realist Ken Loach, who seemed to get into the main competition for every movie he’s made since the turn of the century even when they are quickly dismissed trifles like Looking for Eric and Route Irish. None of these were necessarily viewed as bad movies, but without the “Ken Loach” name attached to them I doubt that Cannes would have given them the time of day (though admittedly I’m going off of reputation). There was of course his great 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which actually did win the Palme d’Or but that movie (a period piece focused on the early days of the IRA) was different from his usual output and felt like a bit of an exception and while that was a deserving film its prize did feel like something of a lifetime achievement. When his new film I, Daniel Blake showed up in the latest Cannes competition lineup it very much did not look like an exception, it looked like another The Angels Share which would get indifferent notices and come and go, but that didn’t happen. Instead this new film beat out some stiff competition to win the Palme d’Or in an upset. Things like that tend to make you sit up and take notice.
The Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) of the title is a carpenter in his late 50s living in contemporary Newcastle who has recently had a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctors not to return to work until he’s had a chance to recover. Unfortunately when Blake goes to the government office to apply for disability benefits they do not simply accept this doctor recommendation and instead have him take a standardized test with questions like “can you lift your hand above your head” which determines (in the government’s eyes) that he is in fact fit to work. He’s told he can appeal this decision but that could take a while. Meanwhile with no ability to work and no disability benefits he’s left to simply apply for unemployment benefits despite no actual intention of accepting a new job if one were offered to him, and even this process is accompanied by its own bureaucratic nightmares. While waiting in one of many lines he overhears a fellow benefits seeker, a single mother of two named Katie (Hayley Squires), going through a similar hassle and can’t help but speak up on her behalf. This results in a strange sort of friendship between the two of them as Blake attempts to help Katie and her kids with some of his handyman skills but as his own situation becomes more and more desperate he becomes almost ashamed to let them see his own destitution.
I, Daniel Blake is clearly an indictment on the apparently Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is the process of getting disability benefits in the United Kingdom, and I doubt that this kind of experience is anywhere close to limited to that country. Shortly after seeing the film I opted to check in with some relatives I know who’ve had experiences trying to work with comparable agencies in the United States and they seemed to suggest that it’s not much different here. It was suggested that Daniel might have had a slightly easier time here as the local politicians tend to view the disabled as more “worthy” than other people in need of help (his friend Katie, the single mother, would have likely been even worse off here) but he also likely would have had to deal with major medical bills on top of his other problems given our awful healthcare system. Really though the film is in many ways less concerned with the services that are and aren’t being offered by the government and more concerned with the barriers and the red tape that make it hard for people to get whatever services they actually are entitled to.
At one point a character advances the suggestion that these bits of government inefficiency aren’t an accident but rather an intentional tactic used by the powers that be in order to discourage people from seeking the resources their entitled to, a viewpoint that . That is perhaps a bit simplistic and conspiratorial, some of these rules actually do have legitimate purposes, but the darker answer is that a lot of them simply exist because the voters demand them. People harp and harp on the prospect of the “undeserving” getting government benefits and governments respond by building bureaucratic hurdle after bureaucratic hurdle. It’s easy to complain about “government handouts” when you’re an outside observer, but the second you actually need one they suddenly don’t seem so easy to get. I feel like Loach would have done well to drive this point home a bit more. Because the film is so ground level it can be easy to feel like all the problems that Blake runs into are just the result of uncaring cruelty rather than shortsighted public policy.
Daniel Blake himself is played by a guy named Dave Johns who isn’t a complete non-actor as he apparently has a background in stand-up comedy, but he’s never been in a feature length film before and has that raw non-professional edge that Loach often looks for while still having the charisma to anchor a movie like this. Blake is depicted as a stubborn and occasionally prickly guy but one who is ultimately big hearted and kind. He also seems to get along well with all sorts of common people whether they’re down on their luck single mothers or his black neighbors who are running a hustle involving imported sneakers. In some ways I found Loach’s decision to make Blake into such a likable protagonist to be somewhat simplistic as one of the great tensions in the world today is that these white working-class figures are all too often intolerant trump voters and immigrant bashing brexiters of the kind people just don’t care too much to help. I certainly understand the impulse to make Blake a paragon of the proletariat in order to build empathy but I feel like a more challenging film could have been made by trying to build empathy for someone who was a bit more flawed.
When Ken Loach made the film Jimmy’s Hall in 2015 a lot of people interpreted it as a swan song from the octogenarian filmmaker and as an attempt to go out on a slightly more upbeat note after having made so many movies about people who were rather miserable. Rumors of his retirement proved to be unfounded though and he’s followed that movie with another film that could be a worthy final movie and one that is perhaps a bit more in keeping with the tone and style that Loach built his career on. The basic filmmaking style here is serviceable and Loach is not necessarily presenting the kind of bold vision that one would usually associate with a Palm d’Or winner, but its look at society and at the life of its protagonist does prove to be affecting and will definitely leave you with some food for thought.