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NYFF Previews: ‘I, Daniel Blake’

I, Daniel Blake is the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, the highest award of the Cannes Film Festival. The film, allegedly veteran director Ken Loach’s last, received something of a mixed reception at Cannes despite its award. I’ve heard a rumor saying that the movie only won because it was short. But general audiences were more favorable at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won the publically voted Prix du Public. It will be shown at the 54th New York Film Festival and will be released in the UK on October 21st.

The movie is less of an arthouse film than a more standard piece Oscar bait. I, Daniel Blake is a drama with a quite a lot to say. It is the story of – you guessed it – Dan Blake (Dave Johns), a widower carpenter living in Northern England. Blake suffers from a heart condition that means he cannot work, but the heartless medical bureaucracy of the state bungles his paperwork. He is told he must look for a job he cannot work. As a no-nonsense blue collar working man, all of this is utter nonsense.

Dan’s life is given a purpose when he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother tortured by the English welfare system. Just as Dan is trapped badly under the cruel wheels of Austerity, so is she. It costs money to properly take care of the sick and poor with respect. It is far cheaper to scam them along with a series of humiliations and impossible demands. Katie and her two kids have been forced to move hundreds of miles out of their London home. While Dan himself has nothing, he still steps up to help this woman.

Universal Healthcare Dysfunctions

Clearly, Loach has a lot to say about the state of the United Kingdom and conservative governments. I, Daniel Blake is the kind of movie made by a furious director. Loach is not above ending his film with full speeches damning the cruel automation of the modern health system. The health care system of I, Daniel Blake is full of heartless bureaucrats and impossible computer systems. This England is a gray land of constant overcast, no jobs, and few glimmers of hope.

I, Daniel Blake is a very timely movie. Here in the United States the health care system has been an expensive mess for years. (I actually work in health care as a day job when not Fandom-ing, I’m part of the problem.) In the UK, they have underfunded their health care system to the point of near collapse. Daniel Blake’s story is disturbingly real.

Still, I, Daniel Blake is not a subtle movie. Ken Loach is patient enough during most of the running time to build a sense of place and tone. But ultimately, I Daniel Blake feels like a modern version of 19th century Dickens or Hugo novels. Dan is an impatient Jean Valjean with a Northern accent. (Is Dan’s professional as a carpenter a Christ metaphor?) I, Daniel Blake is a simple enough movie to win over a crowd, but its bluntness may hurt it come the Oscar hunt.


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