Fifty years ago, British filmmaker Ken Loach rattled television viewers in Britain with “Cathy Come Home,” a hard-edged, close-up look at a young mother’s slide into poverty and homelessness that awakened a country to ignored sociopolitical issues. Now 80, Loach has become an Old Master of classic social realism, while the plight of the working class he’s been dramatizing for decades has hardly improved.
That combination of traditional movie naturalism and still-seething anger is at the rabble-rousing heart of “I, Daniel Blake,” Loach’s latest clear-eyed bulletin from the world of the dispossessed. In this case, it’s a lens trained on a proud, widowed Newcastle woodworker (Dave Johns) as he tries vainly to secure financial assistance from the government after a job-stopping heart attack. Zeroing in on the other end of the spectrum from “Cathy” — the unemployed aged rather than the destitute young — it is both familiar and newly fiery about those teetering on the economic abyss and the ways institutions fail good-hearted, well-meaning souls.
Very quickly, Loach and longtime collaborator Paul Laverty establish their signature milieu of life vs. the state with a testy/funny voiceover exchange between Daniel and a questionnaire-administering “healthcare professional.” The gist of Daniel’s assessment woes is that doctors say he’s unfit, the government says he’s fit, but to get benefits, he must look for work, yet not get work. Get it? Neither does Daniel, an honorable bloke whose politeness wears thin over long phone wait times, heartless bureaucrats and having to fill out forms online when he’s computer-illiterate. “Give me a plot of land, I can build you a house!” he says at his most defensive. Johns, known primarily as a comedian in Briatin, beautifully captures a man of good humor but growing impatience, his every exasperated reaction to red tape — under Loach’s coolly observant direction — like the reincarnation of slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy.
Daniel is no island, though. He devotes time, platonic affection and energy helping Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single mother with two kids. (In Loach’s version of meet-cute, their paths cross loudly complaining at the jobless-benefits office.) The scenes with Daniel and Katie’s family are quietly touching, and Squires commands the movie’s most wrenching moment, a teary collapse at a food bank that is Loach at his best: unadorned, authentic and heartbreaking about the weight of pure need and the power of simple compassion.
At a certain point, Daniel finds his act of defiance, and it has just the right amount of cathartic comedy and middle-finger insouciance. And yet there’s a dispiriting irony to the prominence Loach has achieved as a chronicler of the forgotten class since “Cathy Come Home” kicked off a long line of regular Joe and Jane protagonists. “Cathy” sent a small earthquake through Britain’s television sets of the 1960s, spurring millions to demand action from Parliament. Dozens of films and accolades later, “I, Daniel Blake” — which earned Loach his second Palme d’Or at Cannes, where he’s beloved — is no less forged in ire about Stuff That Matters, and it’s been a hit in Britain.
But the ripple effect of these types of movies remains uncertain, especially as cynicism overwhelms outrage. Maybe that’s why this time around, Loach and Laverty adopt a tinny fatalism in the home stretch, treating their sympathetically drawn, flesh-and-blood characters as melodramatic pawns. When “I, Daniel Blake” regrettably piles it on at the end, it’s Loach growing weary of humanizing details and desperate to shake you up with consequences, didacticism and speechifying. It’s the finger-pointer in him, but as this movie frequently shows in its best moments, he’s still a practiced veteran at open-arms affection for the dignity of the downtrodden.
‘I, Daniel Blake’
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Town Center, Encino
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