- Studying British Cinema 1999 – 2009
For those of us who are a little obsessed with the nature of British identity, our classic home grown films raise more questions than they answer. Do the Ealing comedies of the 1950s, with their white, middle-class eccentricity, really reflect our cultural essence, or is the social realism of the 1960s a more accurate portrait? Then again, in a world where Wales and Scotland have their own parliaments (and the latter plans to hold a referendum on full independence) does “British” mean anything anymore, especially in a multicultural context? Then there is the question of the class system, whether it is taking on new forms since the neoliberalism of Margaret Thatcher and the reforming zeal of Tony Blair, or whether the same old hierarchy is still in place. John Fitzgerald has not set out to answer any of these questions; after all, this is a film book for beginners, what publishers like to call an “accessible” guide. Even so, the very nature of his subject matter means that whether he intends to or not, he is analysing the nature of British society in the first decade of this century.
Studying British Cinema: 1999 -- 2009 covers a whole range of contexts such as the economic conditions of film production in the Blair years, questions of authorship and genre, and the impact on British films of the World Trade [End Page 94] Centre and London terrorist attacks. This is a very large area for such a short book; it is no surprise that ideas and themes wrestle with each other in a very confined space and sometimes collapse from lack of oxygen.
Judging from this book, the Noughties (to use that irritating phrase) have been defined on screen by a series of conflicting self-images. One of these, a great boon for overseas sales, is what might be called the Limey middle-class fairyland. These films often feature Hugh Grant (one of our most irritating exports) wandering through a mist of red telephone boxes, smiling policeman and London tourist landmarks while at the same time falling in love with very unlikely women and stuttering a lot. For instance, in Love Actually (2003), he plays a Prime Minister who falls in love with his tea lady. As Fitzgerald notes, this film, and others made by Working Title Films, acknowledge the chasm between rich and poor that widened during the Thatcher era and that Tony Blair’s government did very little to narrow. Even so, they wish away the political problems with a saccharine vision of grand romance conquering all. This is a Blairite vision, as the author puts it, which suggests that social barriers can be surmounted with nothing more than Love and a flick of Mr Grant’s floppy hairdo.
Another self-image is located at the other end of the social spectrum. This is the British brand of gritty social realism, started by such pioneers as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Fitzgerald points out that in the period under discussion, new women directors, such as Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay, developed a more poetic vision of the usual grimy streets and rain sodden gloom. For instance, in Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (2002), a dour Scottish port is contrasted with the fleshpots of Spain. In visual terms, Fitzgerald sees Ramsay’s second feature as “much more like a European art film” than the more macho work of fifty years before. In addition, its visual power “shows the possibilities of what British film can do when it reinvents the ordinary and strives for the extraordinary.”
All these have been developments in style and perspective. Yet 1999 to 2009 also saw social change that created new subject matter for British filmmakers. One of Fitzgerald’s best chapters concerns the experiences of asylum seekers and of the economic migrants who came to Britain after the European Union expanded in 2004. Among these excellent films is Last Resort (2000), the story of an indigenous Brit and a Russian asylum seeker in a holding area in a down at heel seaside resort. Directed by the...