Same old, same old: British film is stuck in a time-warp ruled by social cliché
The British film industry is stagnating. I realise that the obligatory response to the box-office success of The Duchess and This is England is one of pride. My initial pride, however, is stultified by a niggling feeling deep inside that we have exposed the world to yet another one of those films. The problem is that, in Britain, we have developed an artistic tendency to caricature our society. It seems that there is an unwritten rule that a British film must be about being British in some way, and this strange idea manifests itself in expositional and caricatured presentations of social extremes.
To observe our filmic output, one would be forgiven for thinking that British society is divided into two distinct social categories: the dysfunctional stiff-upper-lip aristocracy, and the ‘gritty’, urban supposed reality portrayed in the films of Shane Meadows. This notion of Britishness has resulted in a film culture which is constrained by ideas of class and nationality in a way that other national cinemas are not. In contrast, the vast majority of Britons inhabit a middle-ground that is rarely acknowledged by our films. Portrayals of ‘normal’ British life are invariably undermined by clichéd, Hugh Grant-esque British buffoonery.
I do not, of course, suggest that British films should avoid social context. Nor do I dismiss the social importance of Shane Meadow’s films, which explore resilient social problems (though perhaps his recent venture could have been more aptly named ‘This Was England’ or ‘This-is-England-for-a-small-minority-of-people’ – if, indeed, the crass and didactic title was intentional). When films are so glaringly class-conscious, however, they become fuelled by a political agenda which negates the possibility of originality and creativity of concept that is seen in other national cinemas. Take, for example, the European tradition of pleasantly introverted, contemplative and experimental films such as Caro Diario (Moretti) and Amélie (Jeunet). Aside from notable exceptions such as the wonderfully voyeuristic Red Road (Arnold), one is generally hard pushed to find a British film which remains firmly grounded in a modern social context, without overtly exploring it. I simply call for more variation.
The excuse for such formulaic film-making is often the ‘American audience’. Yet, whilst the American fascination with the British ruling class is undeniable, British obsession with social extremes is a deep-embedded problem. Disinterest in normality and hunger for sensationalism is evident not only in film, it pervades everyday life – from trashy magazines to ‘kitchen-sink’ theatre. Notes on a Scandal (Marber) exemplifies the exception. It avoided social comment and received mass audiences ($17.5m) and critical acclaim in the US. If this genial response can be explained solely by Judi Dench’s popularity, then she represents a case in point: Dench rebuffs class clichés, and has instead found an individual middle-ground which has ensured her popularity and respect across the pond.