Robert Pimm

Home » Reviews » Human beings vs the State: Captain Fantastic vs I, Daniel Blake

Human beings vs the State: Captain Fantastic vs I, Daniel Blake

An American man tries to shield his family from society; but finds society, and children, are complicated.

A British man and woman try to make their way through life; but are tormented and defeated.

I recently saw two fine films in 24 hours.  In the confusingly-named Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen plays the father of six children who he is seeking to raise in a remote forest according to his ’60s-oriented anti-capitalist views.  When a tragedy forces them to interact with the outside world, the father’s efforts to give the children what he considers the best possible upbringing are challenged; and something has to give.

In I, Daniel Blake, David Johns and Hayley Squires play would-be benefit claimants unable to navigate the UK social security system.  Both are treated sympathetically as they try to get by; but we can see early on that this is unlikely to turn out well.  As troubles gather, the kindnesses of friends and neighbours contrast with a state depicted as cruel and implacable.

Both films are worth watching; the contrasts are interesting.  Captain Fantastic looks, and feels, rich in colour and context.  Despite tragedy and challenge, there is (mild spoiler alert) something resembling a happy ending.  The sound-track is uplifting.  Nearly everyone is good-looking.  The eponymous title character is conflicted and ambiguous: maddening and arrogant as well as well-meaning, affectionate and improbably omniscient.  The story moves along at a good lick, with the main character finding a kind of redemption, in classic Hollywood narrative style, by changing and growing.  Some moments pack emotional punch (I found the late rendition of Guns’N’Roses  classic “Sweet Child of Mine” moving); but these are diminished by a sense that nothing too bad will happen.

In I, Daniel Blake, nearly everything is colourless: people, buildings, an entire city.  The narrative, apart from a few milliseconds of bleak, black comedy, is unremittingly gloomy.  The story is crowded with performances so realistic – few of them by people with film-star good looks – you wonder if the performers are actors at all.  Few of the characters are ambiguous; they’re either plucky or evil.  The narrative grinds forward so inexorably that tragedy seems inevitable throughout; when it occurs, it feels almost a release.  The emotional key-points are so intense they’re difficult to watch.  No-one shows much sign of finding redemption through change.  Music is deployed skilfully – notably the classic BBC radio theme The Shipping Forecast (Sailing by) but offers little hope.

Neither movie is perfect; but I’d rate both highly if you fancy thought-provoking social drama.

Captain Fantastic 8/10: For: intelligent, entertaining, occasionally uplifting.  Against: both conflict and narrative have saccharine moments, and the ending plays it safe.

I, Daniel Blake 8/10: For: gritty social criticism with outstanding acting and emotional heft.  Against: some will find it too polemical; the story offers little by way of twists, surprises or cheer.

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