The 2013 Venice Film Festival saw the Best Screenplay prize awarded to Philomena, the most recent work from lauded British director Stephen Frears. It tells the true story of Philomena Lee, an unmarried woman in Ireland whose baby the Catholic Church sold for adoption in the 1950s.
Asked about his intentions in making such a potentially inflammatory film, Frears was adamant that he had no desire to disgrace the church for events that had occurred half a century ago, rather hoping to explore a significant yet forgotten chapter of the institution’s history.
Indeed, the filmmakers extolled as British national treasures, filmmakers such as Frears, tend to have one thing in common: unwillingness to sugar-coat the dismal. Britain, at times a grim and grey place with an often dark history, receives no special treatment in this regard.
British cinema is well known for revealing the ugly underbelly of society and being unafraid to criticise it. Such films are offered as a counterintuitive brand of Made in Britain patriotism. A combination of pride and shame, they champion the extraordinariness of ordinary people struggling in impossible circumstances. Character-driven and unpolished, they are a project in the humanisation of those individuals whose faces have been obscured by prejudice in contemporary Britain.
The young working class feature prominently in the narratives of many of these films, led by Ken Loach’s example in the iconic Kes, a film that won critical acclaim at the time of its release in 1969 and exerts its influence on the British cinema scene to this day. It offers a view into the world of a young boy in Yorkshire, struggling against the prospect of a life in the coal mines. Armed with nothing but a paper route job, he finds a glimmer of hope when he befriends a kestrel, which he keeps with the idea of training in falconry and creating a different, if improbable, future for himself.
This idea of redemption in unfavourable circumstance is revisited in Loach’s most recent contribution to British cinema, the 2012 film The Angels’ Share. A comedy-drama entirely different in tone to Kes, it tells the story of a group of offenders on a community payback scheme. Having been continuously dealt bad hands in life, the group decide to change their fortune by way of an unlikely heist.
Whilst being sympathetic to his characters, Loach does not skirt around the very real problem of violence in their communities — indeed, his depictions of this violence are brutal and unflinching. Nor does he claim his protagonists’ innocence. Rather, he places them, and by proxy their actions, in the context of a particular social and political environment, in which the cycles of violence and poverty are a fact of everyday life.
In 2006, director Shane Meadows released what would become compulsory viewing for anyone looking to better understand the cultural history of modern-day England. This is England takes place in the early 1980s, in the midst of rapid deindustrialisation and in the aftermath of the Falklands War.
The protagonist is 13-year-old Shaun, left fatherless by the conflict and bullied at school for his unfashionable trousers. After a group of young skinheads take him under their wing, he finds himself implicated in their own internal politics, reflective of British politics at the time. Caught between Combo, a nationalist, racist ex-convict, and Woody, the tolerant if rough-around-the-edges gang-leader who first took pity on him, Shaun experiences a nation-wide struggle with racial tensions on a local level. Indeed, for Meadows, This is England is a form of historical documentation, a means of capturing the country at a particularly tumultuous moment, according not to those who write history, but those who experienced it.
Britain’s struggles with change and difference have also been well-documented by Stephen Frears in his earlier films. My Beautiful Laundrette, released in 1985, is the tale of Omar, a young, second-generation Pakistani man, navigating the new economic landscape of Thatcher’s reforms, clashing with the growing resentment of British nationalists and discovering what it means to be gay in 1980s Britain.
Frears also seems to ask the question: what does it mean to be English? He holds that it is not as simple as residing on one side of an ethnic rift. While Omar’s uncle is a businessman thriving in Britain’s economic climate, exploiting the perks of his job and “squeezing the tits of the system”, his father, a weathered socialist, lies incapacitated by a combination of his alcoholism and disillusionment. The uncle informs Omar’s poor, white boyfriend, with the authority of a native Englishman, that England will hold nothing for him, despite it being his home country. Here, Frears depicts the complexity at the root of British society in the 1980s, elucidating the divide not only between colour, but also between class.
The cultural touchstones of British cinema rarely paint a pretty picture. They are political statements and artistic renderings of a country still struggling with class inequality and racial tension. Despite this, they more closely resemble a series of loving tributes than they do a series of scathing attacks. Their tone is critical, their subject matter often brutal, yet the generosity with which they treat their protagonists is evidence of a prevailing hopefulness. They prove that it is possible to love a country, even to be patriotic, without turning a blind eye to its flaws.