AFI Fest Review: Compassion is key in ‘I, DANIEL BLAKE’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I, DANIEL BLAKE | 1h 40min  |R
Directed by: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave JohnsHayley SquiresSharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe, Kate Rutter

Director Ken Loach has made quite a name for himself without ever going mainstream. The world-renowned filmmaker selects stories that speak to the humanity inside all of us against the backdrop of working class struggle. His emotional through lines are strong, as evident in KES, THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, ANGELS’ SHARE and JIMMY’S HALL. His latest, I, DANIEL BLAKE is no different – but its call to arms for empathy is grounded, astoundingly timely and resonant. It’s a heartwarming, heartrending and heartbreaking portrait – and it’ll leave you in tears.

Widowed woodworker Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is caught between a rock and a hard place. Though he’s still recovering from a heart attack, and his doctors have forbade him to work, the state welfare system completely fails him, clearing him to work and denying him his benefits if he doesn’t. Around the same time, he meets harried single mom Katie Morgan (Lilly Allen doppelganger Hayley Squires). She too has just about had it with social workers. The two form a sweet friendship as they try to get back on their feet again, helping each other out as much as possible. But things take a turn for the worse, leaving Daniel with no other option than to fight the bureaucracy.

Frequent Loach collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, gifts us with a deeply moving portrait of people doing their best under difficult circumstances. This film is bursting with all of the emotions: frustration, fear, empathy, anxiety, love, sadness and joy. There are definitely villains here – like those ivory-tower sitting supervisors in charge at the welfare office and the convenient store security guard, a Russell Crowe doppelganger who exploits dear Katie. But compassionate acts steal the spotlight, making your heart burst: When welfare office worker Ann (Kate Rutter) helps Daniel calm down. When young folk in the library help Daniel fill out an application online. When people rush to aid Katie in the food bank. When the convenience store manager lets Katie take feminine products instead of punishing her. When bystanders cheer on Daniel for defiantly graffiti-ing the side of the welfare office. These small kind acts instill hope for a kinder society. Laverty and Loach know right how to go for the gut. Plus, another frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, turns in incomparable, naturalistic work here.

Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, and Dylan McKiernan in I, DANIEL BLAKE. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.

Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann, and Dylan McKiernan in I, DANIEL BLAKE. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.

Despite all the praise there are a few things left dangling. Daniel’s neighbor China (Kema Sikazwe) is introduced and we see his entrepreneurial spirit blossom, but we don’t see any type of closure with his thread. I suppose it’s just that he’s a success story, but that’s a lot of assumption on my part. It also gets a bit confusing in the third act when Katie and Daniel’s friendship sours, mainly because the turn-around is whiplash-inducing. It feels like at least two integral scenes went missing. The end also feels absurdly abrupt. You’ll still be in the throes of ugly crying when the credits roll and theater manager flips the lights on.

Outside of all that, I, DANIEL BLAKE effortlessly imprints deep within the soul of its viewer. And I sincerely hope he makes his mark on more people than just art-house audiences.

I,DANIEL BLAKE played AFI FEST on November 12. It opens on December 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.