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In the past fifteen years, I have watched British film attempting to assert its Britishness, but I have found that the terrain it maps out seems wholly foreign to my own experience. Largely this felt like someone else’s cinema, or rather a cinema functioning almost exclusively as PR for the notion of that New Modern Britain every successive government has offered up and failed to deliver.
The best job I ever had was as a volunteer with the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in 2003. In exchange for a measly three hours handing out tickets, I could go see as many festival screenings as I wished and rub shoulders with the invited cinema personalities. I met Javier Bardem! I got into a fight with Jim Sheridan‘s wife (less proud of that one). It’s as close as I am ever likely to come to the ‘film industry’.
And yet looking back it was a surprisingly hollow experience. I have been to film festivals since and they are all quite similar in their fascination with celebrity and the glossing over of any genuinely startling work of film into single word reviews exchanged over a cocktail. ‘Controversial’. ‘Disturbing’. ‘Perverse’. There is a sense that the naieve aim of film festivals – the promotion of film as an artform – has been lost in favour of celebrity gossip and flashy marketing.
Every now and then I am reminded of the true value of film criticism, of the pleasures it can offer and the engagement with the medium it encourages. Enter Carl Neville.
This book contains a series of linked essays describing the rising star of the British Film Industry in concert with the populism of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia‘. Neville identifies how the films of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle combined to elide the recent memory of Thatcherism. Realism in cinema is eschewed by the popular box office hits of the period and the new gloss of paint given to government by Blair‘s success in defeating the Tories allows for an aspirational tone to enter political discourse – that of course was not acted upon. Neville also treats of the rise of ‘New Laddism‘, as both a reaction to the ‘New Man‘, of the 1980’s and an endorsement of consumer culture.
All of this, Neville argues, is encapsulated in 90’s cinema and onwards. In Four Weddings and a Funeral he finds an attempt to turn back the clock on Thatcherite Britain to the bucolic era of Waugh, whereas Trainspotting obscures the realities of drug addiction and a crime-ridden underclass by fixating on the notion of ‘choice‘. This nominally Scottish film is revealed to be a voyeuristic skin designed for middle-class England. Its magic realism and irony does not serve to deepen its themes as a work of cinema, but to raise a laugh and replace the awareness of the realities of heroin-addiction and social depravity with a hyper-kinetic cartoon:
The opposition between a non-judgmental imaginative rendering and a patronizing realism assumes that in some way McDonald, Boyle and Hodge are more on the side of the underclass by representing them as attractive, even enviable, rather than suffering and pitiable.
It’s a startling critique of a film that has transcended its initial controversy to become one of the best-known recent films in British history. The films of Danny Boyle in particular are focused on throughout this book, with the author calling attention to how the use of vicarious fantasy avoids any encounters with harsh realism. Another example given for this process is the evolution of the football hooligan sub-genre, from Philip Davis’ I.D., with its disturbing account of an undercover cop embracing the weekend violence of hooliganism, to Frodo Baggins enjoying a thoroughly middle-class misadventure in Lexi Alexander’s Green Street.
Fantasy has replaced any concern with the realities of life in modern Britain. It is not all doom though. Nevillie is particularly appreciative of films like Adam & Paul and Morvern Callar (that rare thing, a masterpiece in its every iteration – the soundtrack is an absolute delight). Sexy Beast compares the misery of London’s criminal underworld to sunny Spain, where Ray Winstone‘s Gal can finally build a life for himself. But it is The Queen which offers Neville the opportunity to return to the boogieman of this piece, Tony Blair, media literate, hysterical, with a canny ability to replace ideology with emotionalism.
This book gave me a welcome slap in the face. Impassioned argumentation and impressively cineliterate.
With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.
‘What kind of books you write?’
This obviously baffled him. He suspected mockery, but wasn’t quite sure. ‘Autobiographies, huh? Don’t you have to be famous to do that?’
‘Not any more.’
I have been waiting for the excuse to review this book for some time. Robert Harris’ thinly disguised poison letter directed at Tony Blair’s regime has already been made into a film, powered by the still vibrant anger felt by many Britons towards the Teflon Prime Minister. I was interested in reading the book, but decided to wait until the two men who defined the War on Terror released their own biographies. Tony Blair’s A Journey was a best-seller that inspired an unusual campaign by protesters to move the book to the ‘Crime’, section. Last week George Bush published his memoirs following the American mid-term elections. Apparently the most distressing event in his two terms of office was having Kanye West complain about his reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
I wanted to know if Harris had sketched out a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts years before these two former heads of state returned to the media scrum to defend their actions.
Each chapter of this book opens with a quote from Andrew Crofts’ Ghostwriting, introducing us to the life of a professional ghost writer. British Prime Minister Adam Lang has retreated to Martha’s Vineyard to ‘write his memoirs’. Unfortunately his last ghost writer has been found dead. That man’s replacement has arrived from London with dollar signs in his eyes, eager to please and having won the commission due to his intention to write an autobiography’that has more in common with a celebrity tome than a political memoir. He wants to tell a story with heart, which appeals to both Adam and his wife Ruth. They are eager to regain the love of the British people, as since his stepping down he has become the most hated man in Britain.
Our nameless ghost simply wants to clean up the material his predecessor McAra wrote, take his cheque and maybe get a mention on the acknowledgements page. He finds Adam Lang to be a very willing subject, charming and happy to engage his ghost-writer with personal reflections not common to most political biographies.
The atmosphere at the retreat itself is close and it becomes clear that the marriage of the Langs is under enormous strain. Adam Lang himself seems more like an actor than a statesman, faking sincerity where genuine emotion is needed. Then a rival politican announces that charges are to be brought before International Criminal Court accusing Lang of war crimes. What’s more the ghost-writer begins to suspect that there was more to McAra’s death than suicide due to work strain. He discovers that he is being watched, with electronically saved documents vanishing from his computer and strangers accosting him in public. Could he soon share the same fate as McAra?
What impresses most about this book is the tangible sense of anger. The arguments for and against the invasion of Iraq will continue to be debated, but what remains unusual is the refusal of Tony Blair in particular to acknowledge any responsibility for the colossal tragedy that followed his decision to go to war. Adam Lang’s need to be loved echoes that of Blair’s, the sole consistent aspect of his Prime Ministership being his love of associating with rock stars, whether it was the Gallagher Brothers during the Cool Britannia era, or Bono in the run-up to the G8 summit in Scotland. Therefore if Lang/Blair is to be loved, he cannot be the war criminal the British public see him as.
Harris wraps a gripping thriller plot around the hook of his Blair pastiche. The conspiracy uncovered by the ghost is convincingly established with chilling insight. I also liked the numerous references to ghostly presences in the book, from the phantom presence of McAra to the ambiguously unreal Adam Lang himself. The fame-chasing ghost-writer is also a condemnation of the lax complicity of the public in the actions of our leaders.
Harris’ book is an impressive political thriller, as well as a momentous broadside against the ‘Special Relationship’, between the United States and the United Kingdom. Angry, defiant (there was a possibility Harris would have faced libel charges from the Blairs) and gripping, a very entertaining yarn.