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

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

An American man tries to shield his children 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 a father trying to raise six children 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.  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, and comparing.  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; 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 tempered 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 recommend both 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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