Where do bureaucrats and functionaries learn this routine — this thing where they pretend that you’re crazy if you complain about something, if you catch them either doing something wrong or enforcing an injustice? You know, the sing-song delivery, with lines like, “As I said to you before, sir …,” and “You’re creating a disturbance, ma’am,” and “You’re going to force me to call security.”
I would say there must be some central school hidden somewhere in this country, but now there’s “I, Daniel Blake” to show that this isn’t only an American phenomenon. They’re doing it in England, too. It’s about a 59-year-old construction worker who gets out of the hospital after having a heart attack. His situation is pretty straightforward. He needs government assistance until his doctors can certify that he’s healthy enough to return to work.
What follows is a Kafkaesque journey into government-agency hell. It’s directed by Ken Loach and can be looked at in one of two ways. This is either the story of what happens when a government stops caring about its people, or it’s a story about how things go to hell once government gets involved at all. In any case, it’s about a system that seems designed to make people feel that they’re entirely worthless and should just die and decrease the surplus population.
Loach is that kind of a filmmaker, a downbeat guy with a social conscience whose films deal with the hardships of working-class life. But there’s something about this movie that is very easy to take. It’s serious, but it’s not a downer, or at least it doesn’t feel that way. The lift comes from the casting of a comedian, Dave Johns, in the title role.
Johns doesn’t make “I, Daniel Blake” into a laugh-a-minute or even a laugh-an-hour exercise. But he keeps things from getting unbearable with his lightness of being. He just doesn’t seem cut out for tragedy. This is a temporary situation, as he sees it. Obviously, someone will soon realize that he really can’t go back to work and that he needs a little help. It’s just a little hiccup that he has to call heartless bureaucrats and then wait on hold listening to Muzak for upwards of two hours. But soon everything will be sorted out.
This is the paradox of the movie: At least half the scenes are about frustrating and even maddening situations, not only maddening to poor Daniel, but maddening to anyone who watches, as in the audience. But the actual experience of “Daniel Blake” is not one of frustration. In fact, the film brings a kind of satisfaction, a sense of “Oh, good. Somebody is finally showing how horrible this is.”
Dave Johns is terrific, the heart and soul of the movie, playing the kind of guy who is the heart and soul of any industrialized country on the planet. So this is the guy they want to throw on the garbage heap? This is the guy who’s expendable? It’s enough to make you want to scream, except you don’t have to scream. Ken Loach does the screaming for you.
(At the Glenwood Arts.)
‘I, Daniel Blake’
Rated R for language.