Hayley Squires and Dave Johns (Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival)
I, Daniel Blake — which premiered Thursday at Cannes — opens not with a scene, but with the sound. It’s a conversation that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever grappled with an insurance company. The title character — a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle — is locked in a surreal interview with a “health-care professional” who’s asking him a series of questions that he’s already answered once before in order to determine if he’s fit to get an Employment and Support Allowance while he’s recovering from a heart attack. That his doctors have all agreed he can’t work — and that he has no other income — is beside the point to the state employee. It’s merely the first time we’ll see the pugnacious, proud, good-hearted Daniel (an excellent Dave Johns who’s also a stand-up comic) metaphorically beat his head against a welfare system that stymies and punishes the people it’s supposed to help.
British director Ken Loach is known for his social realist style and has triumphed at Cannes before — his 2006 war drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or. But the moving I, Daniel Blake brings a particular kind of rage against the economic machine that feels acutely relevant now. Daniel’s encounters with the welfare office are a string of indignities — he’s kept on hold for hours at a time, forced to file forms online even though he doesn’t know anything about computers, and is sent on demeaning “job hunts” for work he can’t accept just to keep up the state-enforced charade. When a pitiless case worker makes him attend a résumé class, he wisecracks at the instructor, pointing out that the only lesson he’s learning is that there are too many people and not enough jobs. Scene after scene is simply maddening, but it’s all leavened with Johns’ performance, a graceful balance of despair, anxiety, and incredulous humor.
Partway through his journey, Daniel — a recent widower who’d nursed his ill wife — meets a young single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) who’s newly marooned in Newcastle public housing after being shoved out of pricey London. Like Daniel, she’s barely keeping afloat — she’s going hungry to feed her two kids — and for a while, they all form a sweet, quasi-family unit as he does what he can to help her. Squires brings a touching poignancy to the role, but Katie’s story feels less fully-drawn, particularly in the last third of the movie when she makes a melodramatic choice, the consequences of which are never really dealt with.
Despite those flaws, I, Daniel Blake is a rare, heartbreaking depiction of the grinding exhaustion of poverty. There’s plenty of kindness to be had in the movie’s world — the young neighbor who keeps an eye on Daniel, the food bank volunteers who tend to Katie, even one of the case workers who tries to help on the sly. The problem is they’re all working in a system that’s designed to fail, and that’s destined to take unique souls like Daniel with it.