Toronto: Cannes Winner 'I, Daniel Blake' Will Test Academy's Mettle

THR's awards analyst says Ken Loach, the 80-year-old Brit who has been the king of the "kitchen sink drama" for a half-century, could land his first best director Oscar nom for this heartbreaking example of the genre.
Courtesy of TIFF
'I, Daniel Blake'

I can't remember the last time I saw an audience as emotionally wrecked by a movie as the one that attended Monday night's North American premiere of Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d'Or at May's Cannes Film Festival. At the end of the screening, not only were lots of people inside a packed Scotiabank theater crying, but many were so devastated that they did not move from their seats until they were told they needed to leave. This apparently is not an uncommon reaction to the latest film from the 80-year-old who for a half-century has reigned as the master of the "kitchen sink drama" — stories about the impact of social problems on regular people. And it raises the question: Can a small film this powerful, but also this upsetting, resonate with a group as large as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

I, Daniel Blake, which Sundance Selects will release Dec. 23, tells the story of a proud 59-year-old widower (played by British comedian Dave Johns) from northeast England — where English accents are so thick they require subtitles — who, after 40 years of work as a carpenter, suffers a heart attack. On doctor's orders, he stays home from work for an extended period of time, assuming that the British benefits system which he has paid into for his entire life will kick into action for him. Instead, he runs up against a soul-sucking wall of red-tape and bureaucracy that frustrates, infuriates and depresses him, and soon jeopardizes his ability to survive. Even in the face of such adversity, he sees that others have it even worse, and shows particular kindness to a young single mother (Hayley Squires) and her two children (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan), who are barely scraping by, as they all begin to look out for one another.

It would be hard to argue to Oscar voters that many 2016 movies are more timely than this one, when, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and large numbers of people who once considered themselves securely "middle-class" are now struggling to stay above water. (A good companion article to this film is Neal Gabler's May 2016 article in The Atlantic, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.") Also, while the British healthcare and welfare system works differently than the American version (in England there actually are variations of the "death panels" that Sarah Palin falsely claimed Obamacare would bring to America), that is not to say it works much better.

The film lays out, without ever feeling preachy or didactic, how the healthcare-industrial complex works — its causes (globalization, etc.), short-term effects (people will do whatever they have to in order to survive, including various forms of hustling and crime) and long-term effects (people wind up robbed of their dignity, self-respect and faith in government). It doesn't suggest the matter is black-and-white — rather, it shows the kindness of some who are part of "the system" and the cruelty of others who are not. Most of all, it serves as a frightening reminder that most of us are only one unexpected illness or accident away from a similar crisis — one that could cost us our health, our job, our savings and our ability to maintain our way of life.

I, Daniel Blake reminds me a lot of what was perhaps the first big-screen kitchen sink drama, King Vidor's 1928 masterpiece The Crowd — and it's interesting to consider how the young Academy received that film. The Crowd was only greenlighted by MGM's Louis B. Mayer with great reluctance, after Vidor, who was coming off of the hit war movie The Big Parade, convinced Mayer's president of production Irving Thalberg that he could replicate that film's success with one set in peacetime dealing with the day-to-day problems of regular people. (Thalberg regarded it as an "experimental film.") In the end, critics raved about the film, but audiences shunned it. Come Oscar time, The Crowd was nominated for best picture and best director, but lost both prizes because, Vidor later learned and shared publicly, Mayer himself campaigned against it within the small "central board of judges" that determined winners in those days. Why? "The others wanted the picture to have an award, but Mayer wouldn't go for it. It was his own picture, but it was unglamorous, against the studio's image." Even The Crowd's own distributor preferred escapism to realism.

All of this makes me skeptical that, even in the age of the screener, very many Academy members will choose to watch a bleak drama without a star. Its best shot at recognition, it seems to me, is with the directors branch, which determines the nominees for best director. Though Loach never has been nominated before, it's worth considering that the directors branch today looks significantly different than it ever has before. That's because, back in June, the Academy invited nearly 100 directors — an unprecedented number that incidentally included Loach — to join the existing 394. Many of these new members — people like Ramin Bahrani, Cristian Mungiu, Dee Rees, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck — are from and/or operate outside of Hollywood, making the sorts of films that Loach helped to pioneer. I wouldn't put it past them to watch I, Daniel Blake and pay tribute to its maker.