For decades, Ken Loach has magnified the struggles of people fucked by the system. From the ostracized youth of 1969’s “Kes” to guerrilla fighters in the Irish War of Independence in 2006’s Palme d’Or-winning “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Loach’s movies focus on realistic scenarios without an ounce of glamor. Leisurely paced but fraught with activist intent, the filmmaker applies a humanitarian perspective that can sometimes come across as overly pedagogical, but rarely without a considerable dose of drama.
“I, Daniel Blake,” the 79-year-old filmmaker’s alleged final film, falls neatly into this paradigm. A predictable bittersweet look at the bureaucratic impact of medical assistance on an ailing middle-class carpenter, the movie pulls off no fancy tricks in its straightforward, didactic approach. But that’s Loach in a nutshell, and anchored by a pair of convincing performances, marks his best film in years.
It doesn’t take long to establish the focus of the film, with 59-year-old widower Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) recovering from a heart attack and seeking financial aid from the state. Over the opening credits, Daniel copes with a series of asinine questions from a paper-pushing employee who seems more committed to complicating the process than offering help. While there, he encounters young single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), a somber, jobless woman struggling to care for her two children. Taking on a patriarchal role in her life, Daniel simultaneously attempts to help Katie find steady work while fighting for his own stability.
While there’s nothing groundbreaking about this scenario, Loach’s steady immersion into the details of welfare bureaucracy develop a unique source of intrigue. At first, there’s a wry comedic element to Daniel’s plight, as he deals with the various systematic roadblocks slowing down his progress: Listening to Mozart on constant loop while placed on hold by a useless help line, and clicking aimlessly through a job site to no avail, he’s a victim of the rulebook whenever he sticks to it. Eventually, that leads the plucky loner to take on a more rebellious attitude, and by the time he starts heckling the instructor at a resume workshop, it’s clear that Daniel would rather demand help than passively wait for it. He’s a typical Loach protagonist, driven to activism as a last resort.
The scenario grows considerably darker as he attempts to help Katie find her footing, with the woman eventually turning to petty crime and other acts of desperation. Daniel’s warm attitude, the lingering effects of his affection for his late wife, builds to an emotional peak in the third act — though little about the outcome of his efforts comes as a surprise.
Johns, with his gentle features and inviting grin, provides an ideal vessel for Loach and regular screenwriter Paul Laverty to magnify the intimate effects of the state’s mechanical process. Wide-eyed and soulful, Squires provides a frantic contrast to Daniel’s easygoing attitude, broadening the movie’s emphasis on different reactions to the results of governmental dysfunction.
Their burgeoning platonic relationship defines the story’s weight far more than Loach’s direction, which plods along in arbitrary scenes surrounding both characters’ challenges until its climactic moments. Loach frequently ends scenes with a casual fade to black, drifting through a series of tender moments rather than maintaining a cohesive flow. Some monologues dig deeper than others, and much about the exposition feels weighted down by the need to stuff in as many illustrations of red tape as possible.
Fortunately, with these expert performers at its center, “I, Daniel Blake” maintains a core authenticity that elevates it above the garden variety kitchen sink routine. It’s an ideal vehicle for Loach’s agenda — far more so than “Jimmy’s Hall,” the thirties-set tale of Irish revolutionary Jimmy Gralton, which Loach previously claimed to be his final film. If indeed Loach is winding down, “I, Daniel Blake” forms a more appropriate vessel for his chief skill. It’s a touching story that would seem altogether familiar if it weren’t also loaded with urgency.
“I, Daniel Blake” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.