It’s not unheard of for a film to receive awards more for its message than its merits as a film. That appears to be the case with I, Daniel Blake, a film about the inanities of the bureaucracies that govern national welfare in the UK. Add to this the fact that the film was directed by Ken Loach, and it’s less surprising that it was last year’s winner of the Palme D’Or. But, despite I, Daniel Blake‘s important – and timely – message, it’s a film that relies far too heavily on caricaturized depictions of government workers that create an unrealistically clear divide between the good and bad guys and overblown, hackneyed plot points.

At its heart, I, Daniel Blake deals with the conflict between real citizens in need of assistance and government systems meant to determine who is qualified for such assistance, often arbitrarily. In the case of widower carpenter Daniel Blake (comedian Dave Johns, in an Everyman role), he suffers a heart attack and is deemed unfit to return to work by his doctor. When he applies for benefits, he initially receives them. However, an eligibility test determines the he is, in fact, fit to work, stripping him of his assistance without even consulting his doctor. His only option, he’s told, is to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance, a benefit dependent upon Daniel logging several hours per work actively looking for work. Even his attempts to challenge the denial of his initial benefits is curtailed by his computer illiteracy.

This part of Daniel’s story is nothing new. Loach and frequent collaborator Paul Laverty highlight the redundancies and unfeeling protocol that bog down government assistance programs in spades. In the process, they emphasize the fallacy of trying to quantify something (a person’s ability to work, effort put into seeking employment, etc.) that is too broad to be easily quantifiable and the grossly impersonal approach of turning individual cases into forms with check boxes. The introduction of Katie (Hayley Squires), an unemployed single mother recently moved to Newcastle because of London’s housing crisis, attempts to add more depth to this exposé of welfare failures. Her story, however, comes off as one trite cliché after another. In effect, she serves to soften Daniel’s character, with the two forming a familial bond both in their desperation and their isolation. But her stereotypical arc doesn’t live up to Laverty’s well-earned screenwriting reputation.

Since Loach chose to shoot I, Daniel Blake in such an unassuming style – drawing heavily on his kitchen sink realism throughout the project – the film is visually very subtle. As a result, Laverty’s script is even more susceptible to analysis than it would have been otherwise. For starters, it becomes glaringly obvious that Loach’s Everyman protagonist is such a kind and flawless figure; a decent man stood in sharp contrast to the uncaring welfare workers. Creating such an artificial “us versus them” dynamic is a cheap way to unnecessarily garner even more sympathy for Daniel and Katie and undermines the film’s commentary on the flawed system itself. But Daniel’s final stand outside the job center – what should be a triumphant moment – is instead a heavy-handed, romanticized moment of rebellion against bureaucracy. It plays more into a populist fantasy than an indictment of the system.

Loach and Laverty certainly speak to the realities of modern welfare with I, Daniel Blake, but it is in no way a deftly executed exposé. This wouldn’t be as glaring a flaw if the story itself weren’t also bogged down in a color-by-numbers depiction of the working-class and poor. But Loach here chooses to forego fleshed out characters in favor of oversimplified archetypes. I, Daniel Blake is a bleak film that ends on an even bleaker note, sparking an important recognition of the flaws in welfare. But Loach is capable of much more than a cautionary tale steeped in cliches.

  • Sorry We Missed You

    A tragedy akin to Death of a Salesman, but lacks so much artifice and nostalgia for a bett…
  • The Angels’ Share

    [xrr rating=3.0/5]If one had to nominate the poet laureate of the British working class fi…
  • From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Koi…Mil Gaya

    Few films will leave you as borderline offended, flabbergasted, entertained and touched as…
  • Oeuvre: Campion: Holy Smoke!

    Holy Smoke! manages to revisit some of the same themes as The Piano yet in a less cohesive…
  • Mountain

    Like Planet Earth, Mountain offers beautiful shots of some of the most treacherous places …
  • Revisit: The Elephant Man

    The Elephant Man acknowledges the basic desires that lie underneath the most seemingly hid…
  • Alone

    May not bring anything new to the table, but it is an effective entry into the canon of si…
  • Ten Minutes To Midnight

    Caroline Williams is swept up in the escalating delirium, but the rest of the cast rarely …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Koi…Mil Gaya

Few films will leave you as borderline offended, flabbergasted, entertained and touched as…