Ken Loach: I, Daniel Blake

Francisco Fontes reviews I, Daniel Blake, by director Ken Loach, at the New York Film Festival. It opens Friday (10/21/16).

Photo Oct 01, 4 49 52 PM

Screenwriter Paul Laverty and actress Hayley Squires during a Q&A with Florence Almozini.

The title for Ken Loach’s new film clearly states who its protagonist is. But this movie is not about one man, it’s about all who cope with the never ending loops of bureaucracy – which is most probably all of us. And that is clear from the very start. Its opening credits contain no image, but we hear the pointless questionnaire Daniel is going through to apply to the government for benefits. We don’t see him, or the interviewer, making us feel that anyone could be in that position – even us in the dark.

Daniel is a middle-aged man who just suffered a heart-attack, preventing him from going back to his job as a carpenter. But while his ‘old ticker’ is failing him, it surely does not fail those around him. He is full of empathy and compassion – ready to help those he meet, even if he is not being helped as he should. This empathy leads him to cross paths with Katie, who is herself a victim of the government’s bureaucracy. Together, slowly losing hope, they descend into the whirlpool of confusion that is the application for welfare support.

The maniacal bureaucracy seem to be surrounding these characters from all sides. At one moment, the repetitious and never ending lullaby coming from Daniel’s phone as he tries to contact the welfare office seem to become the soundtrack of his life, always in the background as he walks around his house – replacing the classical music that would be his normal choice (following his late wife’s taste). At another subtle moment, Daniel asks a side character a simple question, and gets his answer days later. He takes that absolutely naturally, as if he wouldn’t expect anything else.

Loach’s film is as simple as could be, and the resources used only seem to contribute to the confusion and delays of Daniel’s life. Loach moves from scene to scene with simple fades, and one particular moment uses that to the plot’s advantage with perfection. Daniel, who never used a computer before, needs to learn how to do so in order to complete forms. He decides to go to the library and use their machines. This scene is broken down with two fade outs, but Daniel is seen in the same exact position as before, still struggling – time is passing, but nothing changes. It is simple, yet effective.

The power of this movie, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is to make the audience connect with its characters and feel the frustration and inability to escape the labyrinth they are in. And Loach’s techniques are the key to achieve that, like casting actors in different social position that all seem to be Daniel’s doppelgänger – from the manager of the welfare office to other people in his position. During one quick scene, Daniel leaves the office’s waiting room, and his place is taken by another man who looks a lot like him. Later, when he is taking a class on how to write a CV and get jobs, the teacher says that he needs to stand out from the crowd – but that’s impossible, for there are many Daniels. Thousands in England. Millions around the world.


Francisco Fontes.

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