Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper. Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Christian Mungui’s Graduation. Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada. Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
Those films all played In Competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and all of them were passed over for the Palme d’Or in favor of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. Like the Academy Awards, not every Cannes jury is going to get it right, but the George Miller-led jury was especially wrong in 2016. Though to be fair, that kind of judgment would suggest that I, Daniel Blake is a bad film, which is not entirely true. Like Loach’s previous films, it’s well-intentioned, competently made, socially conscious, and anchored by persuasive performances. But there’s a naivety and arrogant simplicity to the work that makes I, Daniel Blake particularly problematic. To suggest that it’s didactic would seem gravely inadequate.
The film, which finally opened in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre yesterday, details the working-class struggles of a former carpenter named Daniel (Dave Johns). The widowed, blue-collar worker contends with the aftermath of a heart attack, where his doctor notifies him that he will not clear him for work. This sets a series of circumstances that finds Daniel at the end of his rope and prepared to hang as he attempts to reason with a welfare bureaucracy designed to keep people at bay.
Crossing any barrier of liberal or conservative polemic, I, Daniel Blake makes its appeal as a purely humanist doctrine. When Katie (Haley Squires) is rejected by officials at the welfare office and forced to walk the streets with her two children, Daniel makes it his personal mission to help the young woman. At this point we’ve already observed Daniel struggle to make sense of the labyrinthine protocols of applying for unemployment (made all the worse by his technological ineptitude), so to see a measure of warmth exchanged between two struggling individuals inspires a measure of hope in humanity’s capacity to help one another.
There’s no denying the efficacy of certain sequences that see Daniel and Katie rely on each other, none more vivid than when Katie purchases food from a shelter. Having gone days without a substantial meal, she collapses, her embarrassment over the situation overwhelming her as staff and Daniel attempt to bring her back up to her feet. It’s the one scene, months after watching the film, which sticks out as a remarkable statement on the sacrifices of the working poor and the community of individuals that can come together to help.
If that scene eloquently, if not overtly, suggests the dire straights of the working poor, then subsequent sequences aim to clear up any confusion. And it’s here where Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty simply go off the rails, leading up to a final sequence that explicitly outlines every thematic element I, Daniel Blake touched upon. It’s a graceless attempt to condemn the bureaucracy that robs Daniel of his agency, but it ultimately comes across as ridiculously overwrought. It’s not to suggest that Loach and Laverty are subtle with anything about I, Daniel Blake, but rather that it’s conclusion is a loudspeaker soap box that does the film more harm than good. Which perhaps most clearly explains the surprise in seeing I, Daniel Blake win a Palme d’Or instead of an Oscar; you’d expect a degree of subtlety from your Cannes winners. Less Norma Rae and more Rosetta. Though Norma Rae did win Sally Field a Best Actress citation from Cannes in 1979, so maybe I’ve been wrong about I, Daniel Blake all along.