Brief Thoughts on Br(ex)itish Cinema
By NEIL ARCHER
Let’s be honest: the clue is in the title. Amongst many other things it represents – most of them, I would add, much more important than this one – Brexit potentially, perhaps irrevocably, is a cut-off point in our understanding of what ‘British cinema’ means. Not just in the sense that many films to come will inevitably deal with, and be affected by, the outcome of the EU referendum (not to mention the very possible likelihood of Scottish independence); but also inasmuch as writers on British cinema (I am one of them) will have to reflect wholesale on the histories and narratives we have constructed for it. The rules even of the very recent past will no longer apply: the last decade, even last year, will start to feel strangely distant. A slight readjustment of letters and semantics and Br(ex)itish cinema becomes Ex-British cinema. ‘This cinema’, as John Cleese might have said, ‘is not pining. It has ceased to be’.
While I can’t call this good news, it isn’t necessarily terrible: it’s just something we’ll have to deal with and make sense of in the coming years. We have no idea what this cinema will be like (as the screenwriter William Goldman famously remarked, if there’s one thing the history of the movies tells us, Nobody Knows Anything). I’m speculating here, though, on what I’ve specifically called Br(ex)itish cinema: one which will not exactly reflect Brexit itself, but mostly reflect on it, adapting itself to these new circumstances. What largely defines many people’s (and much of mainland Europe’s) idea of British cinema, for instance, is its legacy of social realism: witness for example the recent Palme d’Or win for Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) amongst the yachts and seafront glamour of Cannes. Cinema such as this will want to get to grips with the causes and consequences of Brexit for many of those who, after all, voted for it, and will probably be most affected by it. Not a ‘Brexit cinema’ as such (what exactly would that look like?) but a Brexit-ish cinema. Given his own very ambivalent relationship to Europe, I wonder if Loach can put off his oft-discussed retirement to contend with these critical times. If not, the baton is incontestably there to pick up.
How would Loach, though, or anyone else for that matter, get it done? When Loach came out at Cannes in favour of the EU, but which he also criticized as a ‘a neo-liberal project’, he ultimately emphasized its cultural importance for filmmakers and other artists. The infrastructure of European co-production has nurtured art-house and festival favourites such as Loach across the continent: I, Daniel Blake, for example, was an Anglo-French-German production. Britain leaving the EU might mean that, without the European subsidies that sustain the distribution of critically-acclaimed but often non-commercial films (such as the multiple prize-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul ), fewer European films will be exhibited in the UK than is already the case; just as it will also make it harder for British films to be made and distributed throughout Europe. Industry insiders reacting immediately to the results of 23 June were fairly unanimous in their assessment that Brexit would prove a testing, even ‘devastating’ moment for the UK film (and television) industry, reliant as so much of it is on EU funding commissions such as MEDIA and Eurimages, as well as on the free movement of film casts and crews across borders. Perhaps Loach should make his next film for Netflix.
A sneaky (if slightly tangential) thought came to me, though, as the news unfolded over the last weekend, and the value of sterling plummeted. As many commentators have stressed over the years, in hard-nosed economic and employment terms ‘British cinema’ is understood mainly in terms of what Britain does most of, and very well: acting as a studio site for large-scale movie production.Since the end of World War Two, Hollywood has always sought newer, less expensive places to shoot its films, frequently drawing on the expertise of film-making crews in once thriving, now declined international studios (such as Rome’s Cinecittà in the 1950s). Twentieth Century Fox packaged George Lucas and Star Wars off to Elstree in London because it was cost-effective, not because they were anglophiles (and with occasional departures, the franchise’s principal studio location has remained in England). Likewise, what we might call ‘British-ish’ films such as the Harry Potter series (produced by Warner Bros. and David Heyman’s London-based Heyday films) were not made in the UK (entirely) out of loyalty to Harry’s creative origins. I was worried that my salvage plan for Br(ex)itish cinema in the form of massive US investment was, to put it succinctly, bonkers, until I read a Guardian blog the other morning by a Hollywood-based British producer advocating this very thing. While I regret the circumstances, I certainly embrace this idea; even if it’s not clear what such films would be saying about Br(ex)itain.
This leads me to a final question (and – spoiler alert! – a rather flippant but well-intentioned answer): with the inevitable drop in Br(ex)itain’s cultural credit rating, and in light of Brexit’s damaging impact on the coherence of the EU more generally, what kind of films could a Hollywood-bolstered Br(ex)itish film industry sell back to Europe? Both Harry Potter and James Bond, it should be noted, endured Britain’s diminished international lustre on the back of the 2003 Iraq war: the latter, partly by reinventing himself in Casino Royale (2006) almost self-reflexively as a public-school thug; the former, well, because it’s Harry Potter, and they’re all such moppets. The Potter series was in any case, like most mythic sagas, sublimely adaptable to whatever social context you saw in it (in a way, isn’t its whole narrative of beleaguered, multi-ethnic mudbloods battling against the pureblood establishment an apt, politically-charged one for these times?). I’d personally welcome a grown-up sequel to the series, preferably one emphasizing its Scottish roots; maybe one in which Minerva McGonagall comes out of retirement to lead a secessionist Hogwarts, broken free from the Ministry, while Harry and co, Victor Krum and Fleur Delacour team up in a sexy pan-European mash-up.
This probably won’t happen (alas), but meanwhile, the case for James Bond’s persistence remains very much up in the air. This is nothing new: as much as the quality of the Bond series over the last five decades has been (to say the least) variable, it’s bloody-minded resilience in the face of historical and cultural change deserves some respect. Perhaps, as one German commentator suggested last week, this is down to the traditional British ability to bluster through with empty-yet-charming pomp. As much was emphasized in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, which pitted Bond and Her Majesty together in a grand, but also highly parodic, opening entrance. Is such a move, even as light-hearted a one as this, conceivable now? Beyond the potential economic impact on film productions like the 007 series, my suspicion is that Bond, like Br(ex)itain more generally, needs to engage in some pretty serious cultural work if it is to maintain status on the European, even international, stage. For a whole bundle of historical and political reasons, and not only with regard to the UK, casting Idris Elba would be a serious and long-overdue move in a challenging direction. And if he’s not available, why not go for broke and – in the true spirit of cross-channel bilateralism, and if Eon productions can still swing a visa – cast the wonderful French actor Jean Dujardin, who has after all had plenty of practice. I’d be interested to see how the hardline Leave camp reacted to that one.