I tend to associate the Criterion Collection with exemplary releases of classics from Hollywood (like the recent Blu-ray of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln) and international cinema (like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr ). But Criterion is also home to some of the finest contemporary filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Mike Leigh (Meantime), Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper), and Alexander Payne, whose Election has gotten the deluxe treatment accorded to films that are many decades old.
Add to that elite roster the great British filmmaker Ken Loach. Somehow I missed his 2016 release I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, thanks to Criterion, I have not only seen this brilliant picture but gotten the chance to watch Loach at work, review his career, and listen to him discuss his latest film with his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty. These documentaries, and a commentary track, make the experience of watching I, Daniel Blake much richer than it would have been on its own.
At age 79, Loach was ready to retire until his fellow Brits elected a conservative government. That got his dander up. He set out to make a film that would protest the treatment of ordinary citizens like the ones we meet in I, Daniel Blake. More often than not, a movie with an agenda sacrifices some aspect of drama in order to get its message across. That’s not the case here. I, Daniel Blake is searing in its realism and poignant in its portrayal of people who becomes pawns of “the system.”
The title character, played with admirable understatement by Dave Johns, is a man who has worked as a carpenter his whole life, until a heart attack temporarily took him out of the workplace. Now he must appeal to the government for support. Because he’s never used a computer he is doomed from the start. A sympathetic employee tries to help him but is chastised by her supervisor. Another “decision-maker” bawls him out for writing his résumé in pencil and walking around the neighborhood looking for work.
Meanwhile, this self-reliant, straight-shooting fellow befriends a young woman who has been assigned housing in Newcastle because London has become too expensive. Her young children are unhappy because they’ve had to leave their school and friends behind. Daniel Blake starts looking after them and his kindness gives them a glimmer of hope…but he can’t help the young mother find a paying job.
I, Daniel Blake is like a punch in the gut. I found it extremely upsetting, yet I couldn’t look away. Loach and Laverty provide ample reason for us to care about the characters they (and their talented actors) have created, and we share their anger and frustration at a bureaucracy that doesn’t seem to care about individuals—just paperwork. Loach employs a documentary approach to his fictional narrative, with superb results.
Bravo to the Criterion Collection for including I, Daniel Blake in their latest roster of releases. It deserves a place alongside the movies we all think of as classics.