Almost exactly one year ago, “I, Daniel Blake” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but it is only now fetching up on our shores. A slice of British working-class life from social-realist director Ken Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, this affecting portrait of an unemployed craftsman desperately trying to return to a life of dignity and productivity gives the lie to the myth that there are no films celebrating and reflecting white working-class culture. If the movie ultimately descends into awkward obviousness and didacticism, its sharply observed drama and radiant central performances make it well worth the sit.
Known in England as a comedian, Dave Johns delivers an astonishingly moving turn as the title character, a 59-year-old woodworker who has been out of work since a heart attack and is now navigating the state bureaucracy to get his old job back. “I, Daniel Blake” opens with a dark screen, with only the voice of a social worker interviewing Blake about his health and prospects heard; back at his modest flat in a dreary postwar apartment complex, Daniel chides his neighbors for leaving their rubbish out, then continues his war on bureaucratic inertia while staying on hold for up to two hours in a Kafkaesque game of attrition.
A superficial reading of “I, Daniel Blake” might leave the impression that Loach and Laverty are critiquing Britain’s bloated and oppressive welfare state, but their true target is privatization: The social workers and employment “professionals” Daniel works with at the jobs office are all hired by an America contractor. Efficiency, rather than efficacy, is the goal in an operation that often seems cynically structured to guarantee enough shame, humiliation and frustration on the part of clients that they’ll ultimately give up, saving the “company” untold amounts of money and time.
But Daniel is not one to give up, whether he’s trying to become computer-savvy in a “digital default” world, or to help Katie, a young single mother he takes under his wing with alternately inspiring and heartbreaking results. A scene in which Katie breaks down in a food bank is but one of several small, shattering masterpieces that compose “I, Daniel Blake,” which brims with spirit, sympathy and candor as it tackles the catastrophic displacement brought on by economic and technological change.
As we’ve seen in the year since “I, Daniel Blake” premiered at Cannes, those changes have only become more pronounced, and consequential. Loach and Laverty don’t necessarily point out anything new in their film, which in the end winds up succumbing to melodramatic stagecraft that detracts from the crystalline simplicity and clarity that’s come before. But they have much to teach us, simply by lifting up resilience and compassion, and the inherent grace that lies in listening and responding to one another’s deepest needs. “I, Daniel Blake” is about human value: disposable and abstract in one context; eternal, inviolable and sacred in another. They might underline the point a bit too thickly, but Loach and Laverty count on their audience to discern the difference, and to act accordingly.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity. 100 minutes.