I, Daniel Blake
Some film performances attract attention for being over the top. The lead performance of the father in Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” comes to mind. It’s a good performance, and you can’t help but notice it. However, sometimes actors are so quietly invested in their characters that the performances are extremely subtle and thus very moving and thoughtful.
Dave Johns in “I, Daniel Blake” gives the kind of low key, modulated performances that rarely get noticed in the likes of Hollywoodland. Johns is a stand-up comedian who has appeared on British television, but director Ken Loach’s treatise on the bad treatment of the indigent by public services is his first feature film role. And, I would bet, his first dramatic role.
Johns plays the title character, one Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who is unable to work after a heart attack. He is caught between the classic rock and hard place: the medical establishment won’t give him an OK to work until he has recuperated, but in the meantime, social services won’t give him benefits until he’s tried to find work. And that’s putting it mildly.
Loach shows the bureaucratic establishment to be one stop short of a horror movie; there are so many catch 22’s that your head could spin. But the really devastating thing is when you realize that’s just a day at the office; these people don’t realize they are destroying people’s lives – they thing they’re helping.
As Daniel, Johns maintains an absolute calm and dignity about him, even as he tries to reason with people to help him as well as a destitute young mother. He is a guiding hand, but has nowhere to guide people (or himself) to. Yet he is a rock for others. He is kind. Even when you can sense the anger rising, he is an upright gentlemen. A gem of a performance. May Johns see more dramatic roles in his future.
“Paterson,” directed by Jim Jarmusch, showed me an Adam Driver I hadn’t seen before. Or maybe I had seen before, but didn’t care until the character of Paterson came my way. (To be clear, Paterson is the main character of the film, as well as the New Jersey city in which Paterson works. A typical Jarmuschian move.)
Driver’s Paterson is a bus driver (another Jarmusch tease?) who spends his off time writing poetry. He really has a poet’s mind, because not all is written. Paterson sees poetry in much of his mundane existence, so all is well. His is a reserved character, who sees poetry in everything, even the humdrum driving of a bus. But he takes in a wealth of ideas, information and, yes, poetry, from those he encounters on his daily run.
Paterson lives with a stay at home partner (played by Golshifteh Farahani) who lives in her own dream world. She bakes cupcakes and dreams of becoming a country music star (without benefit of musical knowledge). Paterson takes it all in, and deals with her in a loving, kind way. He never sees the need to tell her that her dreams may not come true. It is in this soft, taking it easy approach – that is also pure Jarmusch, by the way - that Adam Driver captures our hearts.
Ruth Negga is the exception to my rule that quiet characters don’t get Oscar nominations. In Jeff Nichols’s film “Loving,” Negga and Joel Edgerton elegantly and quietly dance their story. It is a still dance, when you see a couple on the dance floor who are so taken with each other that they simply sway, not moving. The story, now well known, is of the interracial couple whose desire to live quietly set off a court battle and landmark legislation.
As Mildred Loving, much of Negga’s performance is in her face, particularly in her eyes. Every emotion shows up there: love for her husband and family, rage at the injustices, fear as she is pulled from her bed and made to wait, pregnant, in a jail cell for a judge to deign to let her out on bail. Through all the tribulations, there is a beauty in her face and eyes that keep you riveted.
Joel Edgerton does much the same with his character of Richard Loving, but the intensity spreads through his entire body. You get the feeling that this man cannot say everything that he means, everything that he feels, but we see the emotion in the way he moves, perhaps hard at work fixing a car or the outside of their house, or perhaps putting his arm lightly but assuredly around his wife’s shoulders. This is a man who cannot articulate his feelings, but with simple statements and movements, he speaks volumes.
“The Death of Louis XIV” is Albert Serra’s one-man showcase that he has gifted to the iconic Jean-Pierre Leaud. Playing the dying monarch, Leaud is on screen for virtually the entire film, and lying down in bed at that. In addition he balances an enormous wig on his head that looks as though it could be the cause of his demise.
The Sun King does have some lines, but they are all delivered with the voice of one who is fading away. And as various doctors try different cures on him – each new concoction stranger than the last – Leaud grunt, groans and slurps his way into history. Low lighting and very close camerawork gives us an up close and personal view into his last days.
But lest one thing this is a dramatic, depressing performance, it is really anything but. Humor comes through constantly – by Leaud as well as the few supporting cast members. These are death throes that you want to enjoy.