Review: Ken Loach's 'I, Daniel Blake' Starring Dave Johns and Hayley Squires

Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of Daniel (Dave Johns), an older man struggling to claim his unemployment allowance after a heart attack puts him out of work. While on paper this sounds like a rather straightforward dramatic story, Mr. Loach’s brilliant script and no-frills direction elevate it to be a truly inspiring emotional experience. When you go to see a big 3D blockbuster, for example, the visuals pull you in and overwhelm you. You reach out and become a part of the spectacle. With I, Daniel Blake, it’s the emotional power behind the purely human story you’re watching that grips you just as hard. You want to reach out and engage in the humanity of the scenes you’re watching. In the simplest terms, I, Daniel Blake is emotional 3D.

The film follows Daniel and his struggle, pulling relatable humor from his repeated attempts to follow the rules and fill out the right form, or wait in the right line, or call the right number. Like a stand-up comedy act, Blake finds relatable little things to chuckle at in the universal annoyances we’ve all faced when seeking help: the annoying music they play when you’re on hold on a phone call or the endless questionnaires in emergency waiting rooms. Though Daniel is increasingly worn down by the seemingly endless red tape he has to go around to get the help he needs, his humor, compassion, and optimism never die. It is this grounded and lovely display of the human spirit that make the film so inspiring.

The story is told in a grounded, ambling sort of way. There isn’t so much a conventional “plot” as there is a series of events that occur in the life of this unextraordinary man. We see his interactions with his young neighbors, and the cross-generational friendship he’s formed with them, despite their annoying-neighbor habits of ordering packages to his address, or letting their garbage pile up outside. We join him as he learns how to finally use a computer, laughing with him, never at him as he struggles to process the rapidly advancing technological world. We see the friendships he’s formed with virtual strangers, office workers, and homeless people on the sidewalk beside him. While this is all as mundane as it sounds, it’s also never boring, which is part of the film’s brilliance. These casual, simple connections between people have such a quietly beautiful quality to them, and I, Daniel Blake celebrates this full force. In this sense it reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, a similarly realistic meditation on the beauty of everyday life that blew me away last year. Obviously, both films do take some steps to simplify the world for the sake of accurately dramatizing this sort of average life experience, but the emotional realism in both cases is not the least bit compromised.

The most poignant aspect of the film, however, has to be the unusual friendship formed between Daniel and struggling single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children. There is such a deep and genuine love and compassion that these characters all display to each other at a moment in their lives where they truly need it the most. Loach is careful in his portrayal of these people to never become exploitative of the inherent dramatic intensity of their troubles. They are presented as fully realized people, suffering under conditions outside of their control, who care for each other more than words can say. What was most fascinating to me about the film was that while the heavy and tragic moments these characters experience are truly heartbreaking and powerful, it was the quiet moments of tenderness between this unconventional family that had me close to tears. This movie excellently dramatizes what it is to love unconditionally, and it is truly touching.

Ultimately though, I, Daniel Blake is a political film. It has something to say about the flaws in government aid programs and the societal prejudice faced by those who need it. While it is specifically commenting on the nature of these systems in its native UK, the broad strokes point it makes is universally accessible and well-articulated. That is to say it will leave audiences debating and questioning where they sit on the controversial topic. The brilliance in this, however, once again lies in the purely human nature of the film and its protagonist. Over the course of the movie, you grow to love Daniel just as much as his community does. He grows to care for Katie and want what’s best for her and her children. Your heart is so warmed by the time the film starts making its statement that it could quite honestly talk about any controversial topic it wanted to and audiences would still be on board. Coupling that with the film’s respectful portrayal of the suffering caused by the issue, and you’re left with a very heartfelt spotlight on a troubling topic as opposed to a propaganda piece.

Overall, I, Daniel Blake is an utterly beautiful experience. Its writing, acting, direction and message are all expertly handled, with an infectious heart and humor that make it truly stand out.

4.5 out of 5