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“Only connect,” wrote author E.M. Forster, which might as well be the tagline for Ken Loach’s heartbreaking social drama I, Daniel Blake. Or at least it describes the film’s saving grace. It centers on a relationship between poor, struggling adults, showing how human connection helps them survive in awful economic conditions More broadly, it forges a connection between its audience and a social class from which most of them will be very far removed. It’s a film about the unsustainable condition of being poor and alive, which admittedly sounds like a grueling experience. But I, Daniel Blake seeks understanding—it seeks to connect—and understanding is innately hopeful.
When we first meet Dan (Dave Johns), a British widower, he is lost in a labyrinth of bureaucracy. Dan suffered a heart attack on the job—he’s a carpenter—and while he wants to go back to work, his primary care physician advises him against it. In trying to apply for worker’s compensation, however, a state-employed doctor declares him fit for duty. Within the cold, white rooms of the local welfare office, Dan tries to navigate these contradictions—he rightly describes it as a “monumental farce”—while state workers look on with apathy or pity.
In the waiting room at one office, he witnesses Katie (Hayley Squires) a young mother of two, suffering a similar indignity. After speaking up on her behalf, they both get thrown out. A connection is formed, and he llearns her sad story: kicked out of her London apartment for complaining about a leak; living in a homeless shelter with her children for two years; eventually being relocated to public housing in a town she’s never known.
These backstories are important. They don’t just provide insight or character motivation; they represent the meaning of a life that the state—which holds the power to enhance or destroy that life—willfully ignores. After watching these tragic scenes play out, we understand that every extra in those waiting rooms represents an individual with a story with unique details but familiar beats. Loach employs a wonderful naturalism that allows these stories to feel real, and remarkably he achieves it without relying on shaky handheld camerawork or other tropes of indie cinema. Instead, his framing is still and steady, begging its characters to burst through the edges of the frame.
I, Daniel Blake fashions itself as a social drama about the poor, but it also has plenty to say about the indignities of aging, and where the two intersect: Turns out being elderly and poor are a deadly combination. As Dan applies for various forms of welfare and, at one point, new jobs, he discovers he has missed the digital revolution. The entire system has been digitized, and Dan can’t perform even the simplest tasks on a computer. When you’re poor, problems have a way of compounding.
Yet Dan takes these indignities mostly in stride, staying calm when most of us would be ready to start throwing punches. He stands up for others in need and eventually, in the film’s rousing climax, for himself. The script is determinedly prosaic, but Johns finds the poetry in Dan, in his paternal affection for Katie (when he discovers her in a degrading situation, he blurts tearfully, “I built you a bookshelf”), and in the terms he uses to describe his late wife, “like the ocean… dead still and wild.” It’s an apt description of the film itself, urgent and steady, with a fidelity to hard truth that never clashes with its hopeful soul.
I, Daniel Blake opens Friday at E Street Cinema.