NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2016: What a joyous, funny and moving portrait of man. “I, Daniel Blake” from director Ken Loach ravishes and lives in the mind and hearts of its characters, holding tightly the raw and emotional power that they bestow upon their world. The centerpiece is that of the two invigorating performances from its stars Dave Johns and the breakout work of Hayley Squires, both turning in Oscar-worthy performances. The human spirit, and the actions in which we choose to convey them, are far too complicated just to be watched. They must be experienced. “I, Daniel Blake” takes that opportunity head on, turning in one of the year’s most beautiful and delicate portraits.
The film tells the story of Daniel Blake (Johns), a 59-year-old widower who has recently been taken off of work due to his heart condition. For the first time, he requires government assistance but the bureaucracy and difficulty of the state begins to wear on him. When he meets a single mother, Katie (Squires), and her two young children, the two form an unlikely friendship as they battle through a one-room hostel, welfare and struggling for mere survival in modern day Britain.
“I, Daniel Blake” is intelligent, humorous and simply moving. Leisurely paced, the film is non-mainstream, darkly comical and relentless in its critique of government and the way it treats its own people. Writer Paul Laverty constructs a compelling case, fleshed out with characters you can see bits and pieces of yourself in. He operates the script with a controllable handle, never coursing into predictable territory.
Johns melts into his role with an effortless approach. His humor and dramatic chops also hearken back to great dramedy performances like Paul Giamatti in “Sideways.” He’s able to emote a sense of wonder and heartache. In America, this is something we would perhaps have seen a great thespian like Bruce Dern tackle in his late career. Johns, who makes his feature film debut here, looks as if he’s been working his entire life. This is from an actor who has spent most of his life in stand-up comedy.
Squires sets the screen ablaze with her fiery and astounding performance as Katie. One of the year’s strongest female performances thus far, Squires transcends the screen as a single mother desperate to care for her children. A scene at a food pantry will bring you to tears. Her performance is reminiscent of Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” With that performance, as with Squires’, we knew we found something special. “I, Daniel Blake” has tapped into a new talent.
“I, Daniel Blake” is an affectionate portrait of a man. Sweet and funny, it’s a brave and admirable study in human viciousness, as well as what humanity is capable of doing. We see the relationship of two people who are both the best and worst thing to ever happen to one another. Immersive as a drama but truly engaging as a dark comedy, everything about Loach’s picture sings. It sings so very loud.
“I, Daniel Blake” is distributed by Sundance Selects and will be released Dec. 23.
It will also screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1.