A Production of Values
What we wish to explore here is not whether Britain was right or wrong in voting to leave the European Union but what sort of expectations sat behind the vote and how cinema might have contributed to that decision. After Britain chose to leave the European Union (in June 2016), the Guardian published a couple of useful articles in 2017 and 2018 by respectively Steven Rose and Ian Jack, looking at whether there just might be what we will call 'Brexit Cinema'. Rose says that "if the leave campaign had wanted to make a rousing propaganda movie to stir the nation, it couldn't have picked a better subject matter. Dunkirk has got it all: Britain standing alone against the world, our manufacturing superiority prevailing, the nation coming together - all in a literal effort to get out of Europe." Speaking of The Darkest Hour and Dunkirk, Jack says, "the films have come to be seen as a reflection and endorsement of the Brexit mood". Jack sees similarities between the films' content and newspaper headlines concerning Brexit, referencing a couple of pieces from the always jingoistic, reactionary and monarchically preoccupied the Telegraph. Numerous films we can mention from the last dozen years could make up the imaginary of the typical Telegraph reader, where Britain was a country of splendid isolation: Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour, 1917, Atonement, The King's Speech and The Imitation Game immediately coming to mind. It is here that the very name Great Britain can cause confusion: it is a geographical fact rather than a national superlative it means, strictly speaking, the landmass that is greater Britain, minus the various islands that are attached to it. But this hasn't stopped politicians as varied (or as similar) as former Tory prime minister David Cameron and ex-Ukip leader Paul Nutall in recent years both suggesting we put the great back into Britain. Cameron for example, believed, "Great British businesses and businesspeople are our nation's global ambassadors" (Telegraph) in a pun on Britain's greatness and in contrast to his prior soundbite while in opposition: Broken Britain. Brexit, if we want to be alliterative about it, is determined to put the Great back into Broken Britain. Cameron may have called the referendum and then backed the losing side, but it wouldn't be hard to find numerous Cameron quotes that harked back to an earlier UK, and we can find a few from Labour politicians as well. A Guardian headline stated: "Brown: we need Dunkirk spirit in 2009."
In both Jack and Rose's articles they are careful to see no strict cause and effect between films like The Darkest Hour and Dunkirk and leaving the European Union. "Both films were conceived some time before the EU referendum in June 2016." Jack notes, adding: "Nolan finished his screenplay for Dunkirk in 2015 and began shooting in May 2016. The producers of Darkest Hour acquired a screenplay by Anthony McCarten in 2015; Oldman began talks about playing Churchill a year later." Rose says, "You can't blame Christopher Nolan for Brexit. The director was halfway through making Dunkirk, his new war epic, when the EU referendum took place last June." Yet the absence of causation needn't deny the possibility of correlation. When the actor Bill Paterson says that, "some dear friends are now telling me that Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk and Joe Wright's Darkest Hour have a narrative that supported Brexit. That they are deliberate propaganda" (Scottish Review), we can agree with Paterson that they are exaggerating their case. Yet we might claim that the films are accidental propaganda. It seems highly unlikely that in an industry that supports the European project that those involved in film would then make propaganda movies attacking it. "It's fair to say that the vast majority of people working in the UK film industry are firmly against the UK leaving the EU. UK arts pressure group the Creative Industries Federation say that 96% of its members supported the Remain campaign and 84% said that EU membership was important to the future of their organisation."(StephenFellows.Com)
While the debate between causation and correlation is usually couched in scientific terms, we can do worse than look at it from an ideological perspective. It seems to make no sense causally to claim that Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour are pieces of propaganda: after all production began before the vote and it would seem a very high percentage of people involved in the industry and thus involved in both films weren't Brexiteers. However that needn't mean the argument has to end there. Correlatively it is possible that the images British people are presented with reflect back on the views they have of themselves, and who would be likely to deny that heritage cinema in its various manifestations isn't an important part of Britain's identity, and more especially England's identity, within the country and internationally? Very few British films play up the European project, show characters moving from one European country to the next, having friends throughout the continent and shifting easily from one language to another. In recent years Peter Strickland may have made Katalina Varga in Hungary and The Berberian Sound Studio in Italy, while Le Week-end and The Good Liar suggest in the first instance the importance of Paris on an elderly couple returning to the French capital after many years and, in the latter, that Berlin isn't only a holiday destination but vital to the central characters' past, but it is likely that when we think of British contemporary film, titles like Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour, Atonement, 1917, The Imitation Game and The King's Speech, helped along by such TV productions like The Crown and Downton Abbey, are more likely to come to mind. Katalina Varga made $28,000 worldwide; Berberian Sound Studios $312,000, Le Weekend a much more impressive $8 million. But compare this to Dunkirk ($526m), The Darkest Hour ($64m) and The King's Speech ($414m). Even 1917 which has only recently been released has according to our source, Box Office Mojo, made thus far $71m. Obviously, a great deal of these box-office receipts come from international sales: the films aren't insular works for a local audience but movies that insist on global reach that then reflects back on the British as the Great Britain we once were supposed to be. Anyone who wants to put the great back into Britain cinematically is likely to do so by going into the past, into most especially the two World Wars where Britain is usually presented heroically. Sam Mendes (who directed 1917), Joe Wright (Atonement and The Darkest Hour) and Christophe Nolan (Dunkirk), whatever their personal views on Brexit, have made films that put the great back into Britain that would play well with those who think Britain is a country that needn't be so reliant on their continental neighbours especially when they have fought two world wars against them.
The filmmakers themselves insist they are just telling an important story. Nolan says: "What you can do is be true to the real-life events and what they meant to the people who were involved in them. Dunkirk is a story about community. It's a story about people coming together in the face of evil. And I think different political groups taking that to mean different things means they are necessarily ignoring certain elements of the film." (Screen Daily) "My job as a storyteller is to present questions," Joe Wright says, "and the audience's job is to find answers" (The Atlantic) Neither filmmaker seems to be talking disingenuously but the stories they tell prop up a Manichean approach to the world that isn't too different from a certain strain of Brexit reasoning. Only the most extreme Brexiter is likely to suggest that Brexit is "about people coming together in the face of evil" but plenty commentators have used the term Dunkirk spirit to describe Britain's exit from Europe. Leo McKinstry proposes, in one of the key cheerleaders for leaving Europe, The Daily Express, that "Dunkirk was a blow against the prospect that Britain would be subsumed within a German-led empire, just as Brexit is a blow against our continued subjugation under unaccountable, German-led foreign rule. Both Dunkirk and Brexit epitomise the noble quest for democracy and freedom, fuelled by selfless love of country."
Nolan has made a film that is easy enough to co-opt by people determined to leave the European Union but a fashionable narrative device in the mid-to-late 90s and well into the 2000s might have been less inclined to lend itself so easily to a nationalist cause. Variously termed network narrative, hyperlink cinema and fractal filmmaking, here we had numerous works that moved amongst a variety of characters. Some were important works (Short Cuts, Code Inconnu), some were more facile (Crash, Love Actually), but what they had in common was a shifting sense of perspective indicating any story told had other perspectives to it as well. Short Cuts for example showed an issue of import for one character being of little consequence to another. After a couple's child has an accident the baker who has made a cake for the boy's birthday keeps leaving aggressive messages on the couple's answering machine after they fail to turn up to pay for it: the couple are holding vigil over the boy. The cake is an important issue for the baker, an issue forgotten against the developing personal tragedy for the couple. By introducing us to twenty-four characters all more or less equally important, Robert Altman's film suggests that perspectives and angles are more relevant than goals and obstacles. Nolan may tell three stories simultaneously but they are all goal-oriented and viewed exclusively from the British side. With one story covering a week, another a day and a third an hour, Nolan shows us a threefold push towards Britain's fight against the Germans. Yet while as in much of his work (Memento, The Prestige, Inception) Nolan plays with time, here perspective is less important than achievement: the plucky British doing what they can to fight the Hun. We have a fight on the land that covers a week, from the sea that takes place over a day, and from the air which lasts an hour. What it doesn't offer is a different view of the action perspectivally. The focus is exclusively on Britain. We see it again in Atonement, in the scenes in France. One character says, we fight in France and the French fucking hate us. Make me Home Secretary and I'll sort it out in a fucking minute. We got India and Africa, right. Jerry can have France, and Belgium and whatever else they want. Who's ever been to fucking Poland. It's all about room. Empire. They want more Empire. Give them this shithole, we keep ours and it is bob's your Uncle and Fanny's your fucking aunt." We can't pretend this is the film's view: a moment earlier we have seen the central character played by James McAvoy witness the death of numerous school girls and he has nothing to say in response to his fellow soldier's rant. Atonement novelist Ian McEwan reckoned leaving Europe "a huge mistake."(EuroNews) while the film's scriptriter Christopher Hampton regarded adapting Tartuffe as my protest against Brexit." (Guardian) Nevertheless, it is a speech that could easily be co-opted by The Brexit Party, especially in the context of seeing Germany as the most powerful force at present in Europe that once again wishes to take over.
Atonement only partially concerns WWII; 1917 is more focused on WWI and, again like Dunkirk, formally deliberate. Here two young soldiers must travel from their trench to another a few miles away unsure whether or not the Germans have retreated as far as the general sending them on the mission claims. Their purpose is to carry a letter from the general who insists his fellow commanders elsewhere call off an offensive: military intelligence suggests the Germans have been waiting for this attack, are well-prepared and will annihilate the British. Director Sam Mendes shoots the films as if in one take: it is made up of sinuous long shots held together by ingenious cutting that, apart from one particular instance, gives the impression of a smooth single camera movement. Echoing the immersive, long-take cinema of Birdman and The Revenant, without quite pushing the formalist envelope central to one-take cinema, like Russian Ark and Victoria, Mendes said, "you're being pulled through it almost like a sort of gravitational pull, and so that is deliberate. It doesn't behave like a traditional war movie in that it's not a combat film. That's the other thing, there isn't a lot of bloodshed. And so it depends on low-grade simmering tension a lot of the time." When the interviewer compares the film to the style of a video game, Mendes reckons "it demands and I suppose this is the crucial difference between video games it demands an emotional response. It's asking for you to emotionally engage. So it operates on a visceral level, which is like a game, but on the other hand it asks for you to imagine these men's lives and imagine the lives of people who lived through this for real. And so hopefully it goes a little deeper." (UpRoxx)
Mendes is well aware of the form and that he isn't just telling a story he is finding the visual means with which to immerse the viewer in it (hence the video game comparison) but because the viewer can't control the journey our relationship is emotional rather than avatar-like. While video games insist on putting us in the shoes of the figure who will, say, fight his way out of a tight corner, cinema asks us not to be that figure but to exist alongside him. The central character George has lost his colleague and tries to make it to the other trench alone. We watch him getting shot at by a German as he crosses a bridge, and going over the top and running along the front as British troops rush at the Germans while colliding with George. The film doesn't allow us of course to do anything about it. Partly what makes cinema so manipulative a medium is that it makes us identify with, and remain helpless in the face of, predicaments characters find themselves in. However immersive a film happens to be it keeps us at a remove that Mendes interestingly thinks is emotional. It is the emotional pull that creates identification but he reckons that it is also through film's limitations that feeling can be produced. However, let us say emotion is what the film generates in us but feeling is the residue of that emotion, almost the value of emotion. When the German is shooting at George on the bridge, and a little later when George is wrestling with another German on the ground, the viewer is in the realm of emotion, identifying very strongly with George as we hope he can kill both opponents, which by the end of the film releases the broader feeling of a job well done and the affirmation of great British values. It offers a relatively passive as opposed to active adrenaline rush and this is where Mendes distinguishes a film viewing experience from a video game one. In a game we don't so much follow a character; we are more or less the character, with an avatar embodying us in video game form. We are actively trying to take out as many opponents as we can, while watching 1917 all we can do is hope George will be successful. Out of this hope, a value is produced that arrives at a broader response than merely winning. Once a game is over it is over, as though no broader value can be extracted from it other than the victory or defeat that playing the game has brought about.
This doesn't mean video games don't have strong ideological consequences. "Like all art that arises from culture, games are deeply political. They are also often biased -even when their designers intend them to be impartial - towards conservative, patriarchal and imperialist values such as empire, dominion and conquering by force." (Guardian) So reckons Alfie Brown in a piece, 'Video Games Are Political. Here's How they can Be Progressive?' No doubt there is some truth in this but when we look for articles on gaming and Brexit, usually what comes up is the economic argument: that leaving Europe is bad for the gaming industry. "In the long term, UK businesses may struggle to attract certain-skilled creative/technical individuals, leading to a general drain on talent within the UK gaming industry" (GamesIndustry.Biz), Patrick McCallum says. Perhaps there are right-wing, nationalist or just generally political movements that have been influenced by video games but our assumption is that Brexit isn't one of them, and partly because we believe the sort of event Brexit happens to be doesn't suggest individual self-reliance that the video game plays up; it instead emphasises a national shared value, a feeling of national unity and hence the values the films produce. Certainly the stats work against the idea that video games influenced Brexit. If almost twice as many older people voted Brexit and more than three times as many younger people play video games, it would be unlikely that leaving the European Union could be laid at the video game door. When David Cox in 2012 noticed that older people were the fastest growing demographic in film, he added, "data like this shows that, as might be expected, older people enjoy films about maturity and the past. They are also keen on reality-based material such as documentaries and biopics. Above all, they warm to good stories with rounded characters." (Guardian)
Films like The King's Speech, Atonement, 1917 and The Darkest Hour would fall surely into these categories. A cinema that frequently promotes a British past much better, more honourable and decent than the present might not be supporting leaving the European Union but its message can easily side with it. There may be video games that are coming out of Brexit like the dystopian, 'Not Tonight', but if anything influenced the Brexit vote in the arena of media representation it wouldn't seem to be gaming. Is Brexit a cinematic, perhaps also televisual, phenomenon; that by looking at emotion and feeling, and the value produced in their combination, cinema has unintentionally contributed enormously to leaving the European Union?
One way of comprehending Brexit cinema is to see how numerous films of the last dozen or so years have implicitly created a narrative of British exceptionalism that coincides very well with Brexit sentiment without explicitly making this their intention. They have successfully sutured (in psychoanalytic film terms) us into the text by giving the viewer what they want without quite acknowledging what that want happens to be. When both Wright and Nolan talk about simply telling a good story, they must know that the fictive elements they bring in (in The Darkest Hour) and the complicated yet nationally narrow story devices adopted (in Dunkirk) indicates that simply telling a story has little to do with anything: they are indeed creating a value out of their use of emotion and feeling and of a more specific sort than they might wish to claim. In The Darkest Hour, Wright fictionalises a sequence where we see Churchill on the underground speaking to the people of the country. As Jack says, "did Winston Churchill in the summer of 1940, or any other time, ever take a tube? Did he on that tube talk in a friendly way to his fellow passengers, whose mouths hung open when they saw him? Did he ask for their names and opinions on whether Britain should fight, or sue for peace? Did he quote aloud from Thomas Macaulay's 'Lays of Ancient Rome', to have the verse completed by a young black man, whose hand Churchill amicably touched?" It isn't only that Wright wants to show how Churchill helped win the war, he wants to show how the British people helped him win it with an impromptu vox pop, like some micro-referendum. What do the people think? Any critic interested in cinema's ideological inflections aren't likely to cry over a bit of creative licence but they will holler and scream when it comes to what the fabrications serve. It resembles the Brexit claim: "let the people decide", offered by both sides of the debate: by Nigel Farage long before the referendum took place, and then by many who wanted another one after the people seemed to have decided. Farage could say on Twitter in 2012 that the government should "let the people decide" but it was the same claim that Labour mayor Sadiq Kahn offered in 2019 in the Guardian when suggesting we should have another stab at it. But perhaps the intricacies of the European Union was something the British public should have never voted on because it was something they never had much interest in understanding. Dorothy Bishop noted that "both Leavers and Remainers are almost equally ignorant about the workings of the EU." (LSE) Equally, what would the British public in 1940 have to say about fighting the terrors of Naziism? By creating a fictional scene where Churchill asks the people what he should do creates a scenario that suggests retrospectively the British public got it right. We stood up to the power of Germany and now can do so once again. We might not have the insight we now have over how right it was to tackle Hitler, but history will no doubt prove us right once more. Now of course, Jack notes that it is a stretch to suggest that a film like The Darkest Hour was made in full knowledge of Brexit, but the film went into production in November 2016, long after parliament had voted to have a referendum in 2015 and several months after the referendum itself. If a filmmaker can fictionalise a scene like this then should they not also have the imaginative faculties to muse over how such a scene might play to a public?
Wright gets caught between two narrative presuppositions here that cancel each other out and leads us to wonder about the ideological content. The first is that he wants to tell a story and the second is that he wants to invoke history. If the filmmaker is just telling a tale then the obligation is on getting the story right, making sure it is arced and characterised in a way that maximises tension. But as soon as you deliberately invoke the historical then there are obligations to that too. Occasionally filmmakers play provocatively and not unproblematically with this latter aspect: in Baader, Christopher Roth allows the Baader Meinhof gang to go down in a hail of bullets; Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds gets to kill Hitler and in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to allow Sharon Tate to live. Such historical provocations are rare, but the modest tweaking of historical fact very common. Whether it is creating a villain out of the chief officer on the Titanic (while the real-life figure is honoured with a monument in his home village of Dalbeattie) or Bridge on the River Kwai that played up the officer's obsession with the bridge of the title over his apparent actual concern for his men, it isn't uncommon for Hollywood cinema to prioritise fiction over fact. Yet this is often an instance of a filmmaker wishing to have it both ways: to draw on history for the purposes of a story that has its own ongoing publicity machine, and to tell a story with a smooth arc. If Churchill was an entirely fictional creation then we might find the scene where a prime minister during the war goes down to talk to the plebs course and sentimental but as perhaps the best-known figure in 20th century British history, and made at a time when Britain was in the midst of Brexit mayhem, the scene is especially naive. Even more so since, as Wright reckons, "what I find interesting about Churchill, is that he's been co-opted by so many different factions of the political spectrum, and actually he was far more bipartisan than, certainly, the conservatives would like us to think. He spent many years on the benches of the liberal party, he founded the social security system." Wright believes "he was certainly much more of a humanist than the conservatives are now, and yet, they try and claim him as their own. And one of the things I wanted to try and do was kind of re-appropriate him, reinstate him to his rightful position, which is somehow a bipartisan position, a position that operates purely from personal principles, rather than from party allegiance." (Slash/Film)
Yet Wright must surely see that a good propagandist for the Tory party and a keen Brexiteer will seize on a scene like the one in the underground just as various Telegraph headline writers insist on playing up the Dunkirk spirit. Now obviously not everyone who voted for Brexit happens to be on the right: Brexit showed a schism in British politics that suggested for many voting to get out of Europe was more important than supporting a Labour party they believed might keep them in. Back in Blyth, veteran Labour councillors said they had never seen such anger on the doorsteps. "Deidre Campbell, the wife of the long-serving Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell who stood down for health reasons at this election, said Labour had been 'at war with the people over Brexit'. 'I went to houses where there was poverty but they were going to vote Tory. It was like they were on some kind of drug. I've known for a couple of weeks it wasn't good for Labour,' she said." (Guardian) Whichever way one looks at the scene in The Darkest Hour, it was going to play well with people who wanted out of Europe and/or who supported the Tories. Wright suggests in his above comment no great love for the Conservatives and as a member of the British film industry would have been likely, statistically, to have voted to remain in the European Union. However, his film suggests otherwise and the distortions can lead to an outcome quite distinct from the director's intentions. For some this is the sign of a fine artwork, containing within it meaning beyond the ready control of the artist. But ambiguity is one thing, a message that works against your beliefs surely another.
In The Deep Blue Sea, set in the early fifties but containing a WWII underground scene in flashback, Terrence Davies shows camaraderie amongst the people as everyone sings Molly Malone. It is an Irish song that manages to convey very well a communal spirit without jingoism and suggests a filmmaker in complete control of his art partly because he is well aware of what he wouldn't wish to say. Anybody watching the documentary Of Time and the City will know how intricately and carefully Davies weaves history and culture to suggest an immense pride in being English with numerous reservations about national identity. He is as interested in Mendes, Wright and others in appealing to emotion and feeling but is also wary of a given set of values that might come out of them. The Darkest Hour, like other Brexit films has worked from the historical but hasn't interrogated enough its own presuppositions and thus can so easily be read chauvinistically. It is fair enough to distort history, perhaps, but what ends do your distortions serve, and how much should we then trust? Wright may say one thing but his film can be saying something else because he hasn't worked its meaning through: the emotions and the feelings have been carefully stage-managed but the ideological behind that all but ignored. Speaking of trust, Simon Jenkins sees the scene as emblematic of a broader potential credulity, "... Promotion for the latest Churchill movie, Darkest Hour, says that the actor Gary Oldman "is Churchill". Everyone, including the great man, is made up to appear as in real life. We are asked to treat it as true. Yet it includes a fabricated scene, out of character, in which he chats on the tube with ordinary people, clearly to make him look good. If that is not true, how much else "isn't Churchill"? Some of it; most of it; or all of it?" (Guardian) The same problem arises with The Imitation Game. L. V. Anderson asks: "Just how inaccurate are those inaccuracies? I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing's work at Bletchley Park." (Slate) When we watch early in the film Turing's interview with Commander Denniston, we witness Turning informing the Commander that while he has no grasp of German he is pretty good at crossword puzzles. Denniston prepares to turn him out but when the Commander hears Turing mention the Enigma code he suddenly shows interest. And after that the film's premise is set up, the impossibility of the task suggested, and all we need do now is wait for Turing and his team to crack it. Whether such a scene took place or not in the way director Morten Tyldum proposes, there is both a clear sense of generic scene-setting and character contrast and conflict, and viewer hindsight built into the material. We all know the commander will be proved wrong. Such scenes don't draw from reality for their messiness but for their complacency: we are in both generic and historic expectation. We know the type of scene very well, and know the historic reality that it is based on. It follows the tropes and conventions of many a Hollywood film that draws on historical event but subsumes any reality into a series of conventions. We see much the same in The King's Speech. Writing on the film, Dierdre Gilfedder says, "the class difference conjured up in the film by the dirty streets and poor furnishings of the Logue residence is also a fabrication. Mark Logue paints the portrait of a prosperous bourgeois living in a mansion in Sydenham called Beechgrove. ('The King's Speech: An Allegory of Imperial Rapport') The film looks for broad contrasts and finds them in the differences between the stammering King George and the cocky Ozzie Lionel Logue, someone who can shake a bit of the stiffness out of the monarch and allow the king finally to offer the rousing speech that will inspire a nation. When that speech is accompanied by Beethoven's inspirational 'Ode to Joy' you wonder how much the film has fallen into what immediately works rather than what is problematically utilised. As Slavoj Zizek notes "In 1938, it was performed as the high point of the Reichsmusiktage, the Nazi music festival, and was later used to celebrate Hitler's birthday." (New York Times) It is a conventional and much-used piece of music but director Tom Hooper uses it obliviously in The King's Speech.
Out of such conventions and simplifications, the filmmaker often doesn't seem to realise that the film has ideologically run away with itself. As Colin McArthur says, analysing Braveheart, "this is not a comprehensive attack on Braveheart's historical errors and omissions, still less an attempt to excuse them. It is an attempt to explain the systematic pressures of the Hollywood milieu pressures relating to economic targets, aesthetic and ideological norms and audience expectations combine to produce the mindset wherein accuracy to know historical facts becomes secondary to delivering normative product. As McArthur goes on to say, "as the example of Alan Parker confronted with the response of historians and the black community to Mississippi Burning makes clear, filmmakers may be unconscious of the ideological implications of their own films." (Brigadoon, Braveheart and The Scots) Filmmakers might convince themselves they are just telling a good story but they are often distorting or ignoring the nuances of history all the better to fall into a set of expectations that are far from apolitical, however useful.
Quoting Lary May, A J. Saab notes "Hollywood...does not merely produce entertainment; rather...'something else is going on, something that connects Hollywood to political power, cultural authority and the very meaning of national identity.'" May explores how Hollywood films of the thirties were quite different from those in the fifties, with the thirties films suggesting a communal making of America, and the fifties more concerned with a narrower narrative of consumerism and political conservatism. Have such recent films, though ostensibly British, fallen into a Hollywood reactionary model? The Darkest Hour, Dunkirk and 1917, and also The Imitation Game, Atonement and The King's Speech, are all Hollywood films in the storytelling idiom they adopt and in the finances pumped into their productions. Dreamworks produced 1917, Warner distributed Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour and Atonement were released by Universal, The Imitation Game and King's Speech by the Weinstein Company. Here we have British history made ostensibly by British filmmakers (though The Imitation Game was directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum with a British cast), who then fall into the expectations and demands of mainstream Hollywood entertainment to the potential detriment of British history and identity. We might look at these films and see in them not only a particular approach to Britishness but also an approach to Britishness at a certain time in Hollywood cinema that tells us as much about Hollywood and its narrative techniques and societal expectations as it does about being British. It is bad enough when Hollywood chooses to distort American history but there seems something especially toxic about British filmmakers making American-inflected films and finding themselves part of a debate to which they claim they are innocently contributing. If many have talked about Russian interference in the Brexit vote, then what about a more insidious American influence through the narratives British filmmakers are expected to tell and that can contribute to a particular 'message'?
Thus The Darkest Hour, Dunkirk and others are very much 'British' films, drawing upon a national history and playing to a crowd that might be inclined to see Britain at its best in a past before closer ties to Europe while at the same time American films in how they are made and produced. We might wonder how such films wouldn't be seen as supporting a European exit, and how we should we feel about so much American influence? Imagine if a number of works had been released around the time of the Scottish Independence referendum all showing the English as very clearly an enemy to be conquered, we might assume that the filmmakers were being very naive if they didn't think it might in some way impact on Scotland's decision to go it alone, and especially naive if much of the money and the production demands came from elsewhere. If on the other hand there were a series of film showing strong unity, illustrating the close bonds between people from both sides of the border and how integrated people felt, this might indicate the filmmakers reckoned it would be a good idea to stay together.
From this perspective, it seems Mendes, Wright, Nolan and others are astonishingly guileless if they think their work has no ideological impact, but perhaps we are being naive in suggesting so narrow a notion of cause and effect. Yet isn't this what we have been trying to avoid? It is potentially much more pessimistic than simply proposing that British films in recent years are semi-consciously swaying a vote. It is perhaps there is something isolationist, jingoistic and conservative in the British cultural self-perception, and a self-perception that also turns into the perception of others onto Britain itself. This isn't the same thing as saying Britain is necessarily isolationist, jingoistic and conservative, but if the oldest party in the world happens to be the Tories (founded in 1678) and we have had a conservative government for 30 of the last 50 years and are now looking forward to another five, then these elements would seem a marked characteristic of the British people. Yet we can usefully differentiate the institutional from the natural; to say the UK may be institutionally conservative partly because the institutes happen to be so powerful. At the end of Brideshead Revisited, made in 2008, the troops at the end of the war know they want a Labour government, that they want things to change. The film has nevertheless for most of its running time focused on the dissipated aristocracy rather than the working class; nevertheless this sense that the working class should take over the country comes through and counters very strongly novelist Evelyn Waugh's assumption that the working classes should have little significance in art or life. Asked why he had never given a "sympathetic or even a full-scale portrait of a working-class character" Waugh replied " I don't know them and I'm not interested in them. No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working class other than as grotesques or as pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started sucking up to them." (Paris Review) The interview was from 1962, a moment when many changes had taken place in the post-war years and where the working classes really did seem to be in ascendence, with a post-war political consensus acknowledging the absolute necessity of these social improvements. But John Boorman, talking about these years, reckoned (in 2015) "I have always said that the class system, aristocracy, the monarchy, and all that nonsense should long ago have been swept away...what was regretful was that they didn't have the courage to abolish private education. Schools like Eton and Harrow remained and kept the class divide. There was an opportunity to change all that and it was lost." (Cineaste) Many might have viewed the Blair government with some of the same optimism they saw in Atlee's in 1945, and finally seeing much the same cowardice and far greater compromise. It was after all Blair's government that helped turn Princess Diana's death into a public spectacle (exemplified in another film that could be seen as a Brexit outlier, The Queen), and Blair who waded into a war in Iraq promoting dubious freedoms for those in the Middle East rather than emphasising the freedoms Europeans had to move freely from one European nation to another. Britain's reputation as a monarchical, privileged, war-mongering country was safe in Blair's hands and it seems Waugh needn't have worried.
It would be facile to propose that British films should set about generating progressive narratives, especially when so much in British life indicates the opposite of that progress. When the Royal Family is still a regular feature in the news, opens parliament and also gets to close it down, and above else continues to own immense swathes of land, such a gesture seems very specious indeed. After all, as Stewart Borland notes, "the British Isles are comprised of 60 million acres of real estate. Who owns it all? The short answer is Queen Elizabeth ll. The Queen, which we call 'The Crown', owns about one-sixth of the planet's surface, and is the largest legal landowner in the World." ('This Land Ain't Your Land') Though the empire is ostensibly a thing of the past it exists very much in the present: "Although we have come to think of the British Empire as being a ghost of its former self, in reality Elizabeth ll owns only 22% less than Queen Victoria did during the height of the Empire. That's about 2000 million acres, better known as India. The Queen continues to legally own all the lands of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, 32 other members (around two-thirds) of the Commonwealth, and Antarctica. Feudalism is not dead. It's just hiding." ('This Land Ain't Your Land') The Independent breaks down what the Queen owns in the UK, noting "the group manages a property portfolio worth 12.4bn, and the latest available figures show that it delivered 329m to the Treasury for the 2015/2016 financial year. Property within the Crown Estate's central London portfolio includes almost all of Regent Street and around half the buildings in the St James's area, comprising retail, residential and office space."
Our purpose in briefly focusing on royal power and wealth is to indicate how embodied such values happen to be in the British consciousness and in the economic reality. Generating narratives quite contrary to how the society is structured and how it functions would be cosmetic at best, delusional at worst. But at the same time is there not something cosmetic and delusional about this obsession with the World Wars in British cinema, in making films about WWI And WW II when Britain has in recent years been at war with Afghanistan and Iraq? British troops finally pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014; British troops are still in Iraq if not in combat. These would seem to be more pressing subjects for viewers to think about than wars long since fought, but one of the very few British films on Iraq, the fine, tense and logistically intricate The Battle for Haditha, about 4 US Marines behind a massacre, made $245,000. A British film on foot soldiers in Afghanistan, Kajaki, made $34,000 worldwide. Nostalgic heroism in the past offers much better returns than investigations into the relative present. If British society is so structured around inherited wealth going back many generations, and if viewers don't want to watch and can't easily get access to films that deal with contemporaneous events, then why wouldn't filmmakers focus on the past that sells?
Yet if Nolan, Mendes and others aren't cynical opportunists, and wouldn't appear to be ideologues, then nevertheless they have fallen easily into a discourse that perpetuates myths and makes them fortunes. If we are to look at British cinema over the last dozen years or so, the films that seem to generate a culture rather than reflect it are those including Bait, The Souvenir, Fish Tank, Under The Skin and Hunger, British films that are more inclined to question or at least counter certain assumptions about what Britishness happens to be. Britain's darkest hour might not be Brexit, but we can ask what art is for if not to allow us to interrogate our relationship with ourselves rather than fall into assumptions about what that identity happens to be, in films financed by the US and showing us as others see us rather than how we might just be able to see ourselves.
© Tony McKibbin