No time for nice
Updated: 2017-02-10 07:24
By Elizabeth Kerr(HK Edition)
Whatever your politics, it's hard to deny the discontent and rancor sweeping across the globe. Normally it's up to the more nimble medium of television to react to the world's ways, but the subjects at the center of Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake and John Madden's Miss Sloane look like well-timed responses to the raging chaos. Unwieldy, if well meaning, social services and lobbyists dedicated to swaying public policy are both frustrating beasts that make for wildly differing films. Whether one is better than the other depends on your tolerance for misery and Hollywood endings.
British director Loach - not to be confused with kitchen sink social realist Mike Leigh - has been sticking it to The Man in his socialist-realist films since the 1980s. Loach has championed workers' rights to unionize (Bread and Roses), parental rights versus the state's duty to protect kids at risk (Ladybird Ladybird), and the repeating cycle of poverty and crime (Sweet Sixteen). This 2016 Palme d'Or-winner is another gritty, angry piece of cinema.
Nearly retired Newcastle carpenter Daniel Blake (improv comic Dave Johns) has had a heart attack serious enough to keep him from working, but not serious enough to meet the guidelines set by social services to qualify him for disability benefits. After a frustrating meeting that sees him chasing his own tail at a job center, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who's just moved to town. United in their frustration and just looking for enough help to see them through a bad patch while maintaining their dignity, Daniel and Hayley strike up an unlikely but genuine friendship that provides each with much needed support.
At the other end of the tonal spectrum, Miss Sloane is one small part condemnation of the lobby industry ("good" cause or otherwise) and huge part political thriller, where information is valuable currency and Washington DC is painted as a giant chess board where the public are sacrificial pawns. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, who single-handedly carries the film) is a high-powered, in-demand lobbyist who decides to throw her weight behind a gun control bill, much to the chagrin of her former employers. The story starts with Elizabeth called before a senate hearing where she promptly ignores her lawyer's (David Wilson Barnes) advice, seemingly ready to reveal all her - and the lobby industry's - dirty secrets. To say more would be to relax the tension that debuting writer Perera builds as the vote gets closer and Elizabeth and her opponents get more vicious.
Sadly, Elizabeth's ruthless mettle is softened in a stock thriller ending, and her rough edges are filed down for redemption, taking the movie and the character away from its origins. It would have been thrilling if Perera had the courage (or more likely studio backing) to stay true to the narrative and the woman. The film is also guilty of a few conveniences and head-scratchers (an obviously dubious relationship) that blunt its moral ambiguity, and therefore its impact. Chastain turns in another nuanced, unapologetic performance, but director Madden - he of "nice", unchallenging movies like Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - doesn't take Chastain or Sloane into truly thought-provoking territory.
Thankfully Loach has no time for nice. He and regular writer Paul Laverty create a welfare system rigged against playing by the rules that effortlessly strips away our humanity - on both sides of the customer service line. Johns is recognizable and empathetic, but Squires is stellar as the desperate mom; she makes us feel Katie's humiliation and despair. A food bank visit is heartbreaking. Most of all, Loach brings the edge so many of us dance on painfully close, and his portrait of how easy it would be to slip off it is terrifying. I, Daniel Blake isn't Loach's strongest film, but it's sadly one of his most resonant.
(HK Edition 02/10/2017 page1)