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'Daniel Blake' Skewers The Red Tape That Keeps The Downtrodden Down

It's more than just the titular character in <em>I, Daniel Blake </em>who get stuck in the red tape.
Joss Barratt
Courtesy of Sixteen Films
It's more than just the titular character in I, Daniel Blake who get stuck in the red tape.

We've all been there — hopelessly tangled in red tape, struggling to get a faceless bureaucracy to hear us. So the conversation that takes place under the opening credits of Ken Loach's absurdist dramedy, I, Daniel Blake, will be as familiar as it is sublimely ghastly.

Daniel, played with exasperated stoicism by standup comic Dave Johns, is talking to an interviewer who's asking vaguely medical questions, but who is neither a doctor nor a nurse — "I'm a health care professional," she intones when challenged. But none of the questions she asks have anything to do with his medical condition. He's recently had a heart attack on the job, and his doctors have ordered rest, stress-avoidance and absolutely no work.

This places Daniel between a rock and a hard place (the rock being Britain's National Health Service; the hard place being its pensions department). He can only get a check from the latter if he's actively seeking and able to take a job, something his doctors have expressly forbidden.

He can apply for a waiver online, but he doesn't know his way around a computer. They have a number he can call if he's dyslexic and can't use the online system, he's told.

"Great," he says, "give me the number."

"You'll find it online."

Loach is both an award-winning filmmaker and a social activist, and I, Daniel Blake allows him to combine those passions. The British director isn't just skewering a system that seems designed more to frustrate than to help. He's arguing that a prosperous society that places obstacles in the paths of people who are already struggling ought to be ashamed of itself.

He makes his argument with a passion that's contagious: first, when the title character tries to struggle free of his own red tape, and then when Daniel tries to help Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who's getting a different sort of runaround.

Daniel's assistance, such as it is, gets them both thrown out, but in the process, he gains a sort of family. Soon he's playing grandfather, popping over to Katie's apartment to fix heaters and caulk windows (doctor's orders notwithstanding, he quite likes working when he can), and when he sees that Katie is barely eating so her kids will have more, he accompanies her to a food bank.

There, she endures a humiliation that, as it plays out in a wrenching scene, should move the most hardened supply-sider. It should also remind audiences that Loach remains, in his 80th year, not just a crusader for, but a poet of, the underclass.

Yes, I, Daniel Blakeis, like many of Loach's films, a piece of social-realist fiction. It's also a cinematic cry from the heart, uncommonly resonant at this moment in time.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.