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British director Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake" won the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, but this movingly humane story of average people ground down by an uncaring bureaucracy resonates even more a year later.
Daniel Blake, played by Dave Johns, is a carpenter in Newcastle who, at 59, is recovering from a heart attack and unable to work. Convincing a government clerk that he's still recuperating and in need of support is another matter with a humiliating series of questions about how high he can lift his arms, whether he can carry light loads and so on.
When Daniel is denied disability support, he reluctantly agrees to unemployment benefits. Such benefits require him to actively seek work, though his doctor has told him he shouldn't. There's also the fact that the government requires all paperwork to be done online, and Daniel has no computer and few skills in working one.
As he endures frustrating calls and in-person visits to the government's welfare center, Daniel encounters someone in worse shape. That's Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two, relocated from London to Newcastle because of the availability of government-subsidized housing. Daniel tries to help Katie, never letting on how desperate his own situation has become.
Meanwhile, Daniel sees the other end of the new economy through his neighbor, China (Kema Sikazwe), an African immigrant with a get-rich-quick scheme to sell bootleg sneakers from Asia at below-market prices.
Loach and his regular screenwriter, Paul Laverty (who have teamed up for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "The Angel's Share" and other films), paint a picture of the British welfare system that's both Dickensian and Orwellian. Their argument is not with government helping the less fortunate among us, but with the on-the-cheap way the British government goes about it. It's a system, as seen by its treatment of Daniel and Katie, that throws up layers of paper-pushing largely to make people discouraged and give up.
(Loach, whose politics have always leaned to the left, made the movie when the Conservative leader David Cameron was prime minister. This week's election will determine whether the Tories, under Theresa May, will stay in power.)
Squires, largely unknown before Loach cast her, is a major discovery. Her portrayal of Katie's slow downward slide, from the food pantry to shoplifting, is heartbreaking to watch.
But it's Johns, the "I" in "I, Daniel Blake," who makes the movie so compelling. A stand-up comedian, he possesses that gift comedians often have to spot and give voice to the absurdity of fighting institutions of power. By the time Johns' Daniel delivers the proclamation that gives this passionate movie its title, the audience will sign any petition he wants to nail to the bureaucracy's wall.
'I, Daniel Blake'
An unemployed carpenter is given the bureaucratic runaround in this potent, poignant drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, June 9.
Rating • R for language.
Running time • 100 minutes.