On May 28th, Ruben Ostlund’s film The Square won the 2017 Palme D’or at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. So, it seems appropriate that a year after winning that esteemed award, I, Daniel Blake is finally finding its way to American theaters. The powerful film from director Ken Loach follows a disabled carpenter as he attempts to make ends meet while wading through the morass of government red tape that stands between him and the welfare benefits to which he is entitled. Along the way, he is joined by a young, unemployed mother of two who is similarly trapped in an impersonal system that views her not as a person, but as a file to be processed.
Unlike so many films that tackle social issues, I, Daniel Blake doesn’t wear its agenda on its cinematic sleeve. It prefers to meditate on its subject rather than preach about it. Where so many “issue films” shout their messages from the rooftops, I Daniel Blake whispers its points and is all the stronger for it. “Show, don’t tell” has almost become a cliche, but this film is born of that aesthetic. Viewers are dropped into the lives of these characters and asked to form their own opinions.
The visual style of the film borders on cinema verite. The camerawork is unobtrusive and the editing goes virtually unnoticed. Loach puts us inside the world of these characters and focuses on their lives, not on film-making technique. It makes one wonder just how much work goes into making a film look this casual. The performances are similarly unvarnished and real. The audience feels like flies on the wall, eavesdropping on the difficult times these characters are living.
I, Daniel Blake pleasantly surprises with the conscious choices it makes while unfolding its narrative. Big melodramatic moments are nowhere to be found. Many of the emotional beats are familiar, but rather than feeling obvious and mundane, they sucker punch the audience with their strength and authenticity. (An incident at a food bank is one of the most heart-wrenching on-screen moments of the year.) We identify with these characters and feel moved by their plight, but we never feel manipulated. It’s a difficult balancing act that I, Daniel Blake maintains effortlessly.
Many critical darlings and festival favorites put cinematic form over substance. They seem just a little too pleased with themselves, as if originality, and originality alone, is enough to merit a film’s existence. With its stripped-down look and lived-in performances, I, Daniel Blake puts its emphasis on the lives of its characters, and it’s all the better for it. This is one prizewinner that lives up to the hype.
I, Daniel Blake opens at Landmark Theatre locations across the country on Friday, June 9, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.