As Republicans prepare to repeal as much of the Affordable Care Act as they can, replacing it with a far superior program of [to be determined], it’s at once comforting and infuriating to be reminded that other countries haven’t exactly solved this problem, either. I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s latest jeremiad on behalf of the British working class, opens with the title character (played by stand-up comic Dave Johns, though the role itself is primarily dramatic) being interviewed at length by a maddeningly singleminded National Health worker. Daniel knows exactly what’s ailing him—a previously diagnosed heart condition—but the woman interrogating him insists on following strict procedure, asking a barrage of standard questions. “Can we talk about me heart?” he pleads, in a thick Geordie accent peculiar to a particular region of northern England. “Forget about me arse—that works a dream.” As it turns out, this exercise in bureaucratic frustration is just the beginning for Daniel, who’ll spend the rest of the movie struggling to secure the meager benefits to which he’s entitled. And Geordies aren’t known for avoiding a fight.
Loach has been making variations on this film for decades, though he’s never focused quite this squarely on health care. His not-so-secret weapon here is Johns, who makes Daniel Blake a distinctive, somewhat prickly character who’s also so intensely relatable that it’s impossible not to feel for him. All Daniel wants is to clear up a snafu that prevents him from receiving a check unless he shows proof of having looked for employment—a huge problem, because his doctor has forbidden him to work (he’s a carpenter) for the time being. In order to survive, Daniel is forced to apply for jobs that he can’t take should they be offered to him, essentially scamming employers for whom he might actually want to work once he recovers. His salt-of-the-earth credentials get bolstered when he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother, newly arrived in Newcastle from London, who arrives late for her appointment at the welfare office (due to her unfamiliarity with the area) and discovers that she may now be severely sanctioned as a result.
I, Daniel Blake was the surprise Palme D’Or winner at Cannes this year (Toni Erdmann and American Honey were the big critical favorites in Competition), and it does seem, for an hour or so, like Loach’s best film since his last Palme winner, 2006’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Johns and Squires have lovely chemistry together—the relationship between Daniel and Katie is warm, mutually supportive, and, in a refreshing change of pace, completely platonic—and the indignities that proud citizens experience when they need public assistance have rarely been depicted with such harrowing frankness. Nobody who sees the film will likely forget the scene in which Katie, who’s been skipping meals in order to feed her kids with what little money she has, is so overcome with hunger at a food bank that she can’t stop herself from ripping open a can of baked beans and shoveling them into her mouth with her fingers (and then all but collapsing from shame). At the same time, though, the professionals themselves aren’t demonized. They’re just doing their jobs, after all. It’s the system itself, Daniel Blake insists, that needs overhauling.
Problem is, Loach is still working with screenwriter Paul Laverty, his constant collaborator for the past 20 years, and Laverty has an unfortunate tendency to get ludicrously didactic in the home stretch. The last half hour of I, Daniel Blake practically turns into Les Misérables (the musical, not the novel—but minus the songs), with Katie predictably turning to prostitution and Daniel’s saga resolved via cheap dramatic irony. The movie is plenty affecting when it sticks to credible, low-key difficulties faced with weary decency; there was no need to crank the pathos up to 11 and throw a full-scale pity party. Loach and Laverty’s hearts are in the right place, as ever. It’s their spleens, which definitely do not work a dream, that they need to monitor.