I, Daniel Blake is the cream of the crop of the completely played out misanthropic old man subgenre. So, how to review it?
Put simply, not a lot of it will surprise you, but it contains the ability to easily please, thanks to what a lot of audiences find charming: lilting accents, old folks fed up with small inconveniences that continue to plague daily life, array of minor, loveable characters who play things straight, no matter what.
The film’s title gives the greatest indication of the way director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty handle their main character. “I, Daniel Blake.” It’s all about him. That’s how he sees it, that’s how others understand it. At one point he says, “I’m just going in circles.” That’s because of his need for attention and general narcissism. Even when he tries to help a wronged single mother, the scene becomes about him. This kind of writing is a gamble. If the character’s worth the time, the more the better, but if he’s not, if he’s even on the line, he becomes for us like the many inconveniences he hates.
Unfortunately Loach and Laverty provide such a big helping of Daniel at the beginning (badgering a well meaning doctor, for example, plays over a black screen and introductory credits, with no escape) it sours the film that follows, which contains a moving, platonic relationship with the aforementioned single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her kids, and with his young neighbours.
There are moments here or there that are poetic. There are reasons I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. At least some are easy to understand. Some are clear. For example, at her most desperate, Katie takes a job as an escort. Soon after, Daniel meets with her and tries as best he can to take her back away from that life, but she has no other way to feed her kids. Later, he rouses a community of seemingly long forgotten individuals who rely on the welfare system. Further down the road, tragedy strikes.
The acting is strong, and the dialogue rings true. It hits all the marks. The only issue is the film so clearly aims for those designated marks. In an unoriginal world, in a tired genre, this one issue undermines a lot of what might have been a lot more emotionally stirring had the character type not been such an easily identifiable type at all.
The reliance on familiarity of subgenre to try and do something new is almost always worth seeing. In this case, it doesn’t work, and frankly it might not be worth seeing. The attempt dulls the film’s positives and emphasizes its negatives.
I, Daniel Blake greatly succeeds in the familiar, fails at some of the new, and avoids a lot else.