By Alex Southey
If you read into the hype, I, Daniel Blake is the cream of the crop of the completely played-out misanthropic old man subgenre. Put simply, not a lot of it will surprise you, but it will easily please thanks to its bag of audience charmers. These include lilting accents, old folks fed up with minute inconveniences, and an 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 his need for attention and general narcissism keeps him disconnected from reality. Even when he tries to help a wronged single mother, the scene becomes about him.
Unfortunately, Loach and Laverty provide such a big helping of Daniel at the beginning (he badgers a well-meaning doctor, for example, while inescapable introductory credits roll over a black screen) that it ends up souring 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.
Poetic moments hint at why I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The acting is strong, and the dialogue rings true. It hits all the marks. But this is the issue; the film so clearly aims for those designated marks that we can’t clap for the bullseye. 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.
Perhaps a bit like an elderly narcissist, I, Daniel Blake greatly succeeds in the familiar, fails at some of the new, and avoids a lot else.
I, Daniel Blake opens in Vancouver May 5.