I, Daniel Blake and A Man Called Ove

Keep an eye out for these two 59-year-old widowers

I just returned from Edmonton, where I had the privilege of watching 19 feature-length films in 10 days at the Edmonton International Film Festival (now one of the most important film festivals in Canada). Only two of those 19 films stood out for me, and coincidentally they both featured 59-year-old widower protagonists.

Critics will no doubt be unhappy with the pedagogical nature of I, Daniel Blake. This is not a film that hides its message.

I, Daniel Blake, which will come to American theaters in December, is directed by Ken Loach, most of whose films are about the plight of Britain’s poorest people. Loach is one of my favorite directors, and I, Daniel Blake may be his best film. It won the Palme d’Or (highest award) at the Cannes Film Festival this spring.

Written by Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake stars Dave Johns as Dan Blake, a 59-year-old widower in Newcastle (northern England) who is recovering from a major heart attack. His doctors inform him that he needs more time to recover before going back to work. But when he applies for employment benefits, he has to take a written test, which disqualifies him from the benefits (a healthcare professional determines that Blake’s test answers indicate he can go back to work). So Blake tries applying for job-seeker benefits, but they require him to spend 35 hours a week looking for a job he should not be doing.

Blake rightfully feels that this bureaucratic nightmare is absurd, but it is likely all too common. As Blake tries to figure out how to get enough income to survive, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother (with two children) who is in a similar predicament and is barely able to keep food on the table because she has fallen through cracks in the state system. Blake can’t help Katie financially but tries to help her out in other fatherly ways, resulting in a relationship which will be eye-opening but tense for both of them.

I, Daniel Blake is one of the most humanizing films I have ever seen (and that is, perhaps, my primary criterion for greatness in film). Despite showing how the state often dehumanizes its citizens, and even its own employees (turning them into slavish rule-followers), I, Daniel Blake reveals the tremendous goodness in people both inside and outside the system, and the potential each of us has to challenge the powers that be and to be a good neighbor. Blake himself is a prime example of a man who stands up against dehumanizing authorities as he seeks to improve the lives of the people around him every day. He’s not perfect but he’s one of the most inspirational characters ever depicted on film.

Critics will no doubt be unhappy with the pedagogical nature of I, Daniel Blake. This is not a film that hides its message. But the film is so stark and unsentimental, and delivers its message so effectively, that I have no critique of this characteristic.

The acting in I, Daniel Blake is phenomenal (by all concerned, with Johns and Squires perfectly cast), the cinematography is excellent, and the score is exactly what it should be for this film, namely non-existent. The writing is brilliant, with every word of dialogue feeling natural and all too real. Loach’s direction could not have been better, allowing every scene to flow naturally. One of the best films of the year (and the millennium), I, Daniel Blake is not to be missed.

The second festival film that I highly recommend is already playing in limited release in theaters. It’s a sad, tragic Swedish film about a man making a number of attempts to take his own life so he can join his recently deceased wife, yet it’s one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time.

A Man Called Ove, written and directed by Hannes Holm, stars Rolf Lassgård as the 59-year-old Ove, who gets laid off from his job of 43 years and is forced to spend his days in the condo community where he (and, until recently, his wife) has lived for decades. The sullen, angry Ove is the self-appointed rule enforcer of the condo community, making sure, among other things, that no one drives on the narrow roads separating the community’s small houses (no cars are allowed). With a noose around his neck, Ove is about to kick over the footstool beneath him when he sees a car backing down the road in front of his window. Furious, he runs outside just in time to watch his new neighbor back into his mailbox.

Thus begins a relationship with the new neighbors (focusing on the wife and mother, an Iranian immigrant named Parvaneh, played by Bahar Pars), which will repeatedly frustrate Ove’s suicide attempts. During those attempts, we see flashbacks of Ove’s life that explain at least some of his constant anger and frustration at the “idiots” (especially the terrible “whiteshirts”) who haunt his daily life.

A Man Called Ove doesn’t stand out for its cinematography or score. And while the writing is often sharp, this is by no means an original story—we’ve seen the “grumpy old man” tale told many times. But I have never seen that story told as well as this. With its wry northern European humor, its not untypical behavior (for northern Europe), its innovative structure, and the brilliant pitch-perfect performance by Lassgård, this highly entertaining and moving film about love, friendship, and community is one of the best films I have seen this year.

I, Daniel Blake is not yet rated (probably PG-13, but maybe R for theme and language).

A Man Called Ove is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and language.

 

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.

 

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