Arts movie review

Two lives intersect through empathy

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty present the film I, Daniel Blake

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Dave Johns as Dan, Hayley Squires as Katie, Briana Shann as Daisy, and Dylan McKiernan as Dylan in Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE. Photo by Joss Barratt. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.
Photo by Joss Barratt. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.

I, Daniel Blake
Directed by Ken Loach
Screenplay written by Paul Laverty
Starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan, Briana Shann, Sharon Percy
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The film I, Daniel Blake is a declaration. These words, spray-painted across the walls of a job center, capture the compelling story of 59-year-old carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) who is forced to fight for his welfare rights after a heart attack. Paralleling his struggles is the equally compelling story of single-mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan): the family was evicted from hostel for the homeless, and live in poor housing conditions in Newcastle.

Despite this depressing premise, there is humor in their desperate situations and much-needed warmth in the interactions between the characters and the inherent good nature of our protagonist, Dan. Stubborn and proud, generous and empathetic, our titular hero holds the film together with his capacity for compassion.

Dan’s relationship with Katie is founded on mutual empathy rather than on romance. They have both suffered setbacks in their own lives, yet they continue to struggle and make do with what they have. In this film, Dan’s world is one he builds through his respect for other people and himself.

Each scene holds remarkable tenderness. With all the tragedy that these characters endure, the film would have been outright depressing if it weren’t for the kindness of individuals and their small victories. Each small success is fleeting, but the happiness of living and sharing time with other people is what keeps the characters afloat.

Dan still has his flaws — his pride in taking care of himself leads to his reluctance to ask for help. We follow him through the film as he helps others generously, speaking out against injustice, and while he is just as entitled for help, he chooses to take action for his life in his own way, holding his moral dignity against the world.

For most of the film, Dan’s character acts as a staunch anchor. While his shortcomings — such as the inability to use a computer — hinder him, his stubbornness and willpower pull through. Yet in a memorable shot, we see Dan’s vulnerability as Katie’s daughter, Daisy, peers through the door mail slot of Dan’s apartment and asks, in an earnest, quiet voice, why they couldn’t help him after he had helped them for so many things. He opens the door and the two embrace warmly.

For such a powerful story, the latter half falls short — devolving into contrived plot developments that feel cheap rather than organic. While the case against social welfare programs is a relevant and meaningful cause, a more nuanced approach is sacrificed in favor of this overt social message.

The film lost the wondrous, subtle touch that was found in the earlier half of the film. Early scenes of dialogue exchanges felt less like filmed scripts than living human beings sharing their lives with each other. Like Daniel’s carved wooden fish dangling from the ceiling, these characters are hanging somewhere in the air for someone to appreciate. I wish I could have appreciated them much more than I did.