Written by: Paul Laverty (The Wind That Shakes the Barley)
Directed by: Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Kes)
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
I saw La La Land for a second time last week. Escapism. It’s all we need on a gloomy day.
But sometimes a movie forces us to pay attention, to experience reality as we experience it. Phone trees, being on hold for 45 minutes, being told “that’s not my decision to make,” and just the general frustration of running around in circles because no one seems to know what they are talking about. Imagine pitching a movie on the most horrid parts of human daily life. Enter Ken and Paul.
I, Daniel Blake is little piece of nostalgic Italian neorealism that won the highest honor (the Palm D’Or) at the Cannes Film Festival last year. This being my only knowledge of the movie, I went to see it at 1pm on a Friday afternoon, in a old shoddy movie theater that definitely looked more like a carnival show room. There were two older French women in the theater in addition to me. What an experience we got to share together.
Dave Johns plays—wait for it—Daniel Blake, a widower who has recently had a heart attack and is trying to navigate the exhausting bureaucracy to get disability allowance. I’m not British, but this movie is a loud and proud attack on Tory politics (compare to Republicans in the U.S.). Though his doctors say he is unfit for work, a “healthcare professional” hired by the government deems him a couple “points” above the line and fit for work. While waiting in a lifeless gray office building to meet with some bureaucratic pawn, he notices a woman shouting in a meeting. She is clearly struggling—single mother with two children and new to town. He comes to her defense and the two are escorted out.
Daniel and Katie (Hayley Squires) form a friendship. Missing his wife and his job (he’s a carpenter), Daniel enjoys spending time with Katie’s two children. On the other hand, Katie is barely holding it together by starving in order to make sure her two kids have enough to eat. In one scene, she goes to a food bank and is taking gulps of beans in the corner right after being handed them. That scene does not leave you. Maybe ever.
Without spoiling too much of this modern day Bicycle Thieves, I do want to say that I cried during one particularly unexpected and poignant scene at the end.
The brilliance of this movie is it’s ability to be plotless, yet so captivating at the same time (which is something Paterson never fully managed). People will point out the imperfections of the characters. Why didn’t Daniel take the carpentry job and get out of this mess? Why didn’t Katie just buy the stupid tampons instead of stealing them? I loved these moments. The humanness* was so real, so endearing that I mainly thought, “how could I expect characters in a story to be perfect?” The same goes for the “villain.” Sure, the movie comments on how the government is stomping us down to bugs in a Kafka-esque nightmare. I will be the first to tell you that one bureaucrat who does help Daniel will shatter your heart a million ways. Lots of people try to make politically charged movies. They try to sway you and make you cry (see: literally every Super Bowl commercial). In my opinion, a lot of these efforts are just propaganda. But this movie is the real deal. Political cinema to perfection.
I won’t lie as there are a few things I don’t care for: I am still not a fan of fades. The Newcastle accent was very thick; I missed several lines here and there.
Seriously, nevermind those things. A movie has not had this effect on me in years. You’re missing out on something very special if you don’t take the time to see it.
*this movie would be Ken and Paul’s submission if they were asked to make a movie based on the following Kurt Vonnegut quote:
“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”