“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
The British image abroad is frequently characterized as reticent, stoic, emotionally retarded. British cinema is often seen as a staid and starchy affair, as lacking in feeling as it was in aesthetic passion. However, writing recently about British social realism, I was struck by how many good and interesting British films have focused, to one extent or another, on the grieving process. Key protagonists in these films have lost loved ones, and the films are, to varying degrees, about how they cope with their loss, with plenty of scope for emotional outburst. Perhaps the dour and grey climate lends itself to this funereal vocation . . .
The films I chose to focus on also charted the decline of a particular conception of the British status quo, a class-based patrician commonwealth in which men and women and doctors and street cleaners knew where they stood, and policemen were there to help the lost. Despite its essential inequities and hidebound nostalgia, Old England was a gentle place of tolerance, common sense, and universal kindliness. No shopping malls, no gun crime, no underage sex (that anybody knew about). In these films, the protagonist’s pain itself becomes a catalyst for the exploration of the British commonwealth and what it has become. The concision between moral decline and personal grief seems peculiarly poignant.
As Millions Like Us (1943) begins, the words “and millions like you” appear, confidently addressing a mass wartime audience at a time of unprecedented national solidarity. This extraordinary social document opens with archival footage of prewar Britain, a patrician voice describing a nation at play during that final balmy summer before the blackouts, ration cards, and the bombers came. Before setting out the regulations, injunctions, exhortations, statutes, and bylaws passed by an anxious state as it watched over us, the narration strikes a lighter note as we are reminded what an orange is; once a commonplace treat, now rationed and as rare as streetlight at midnight. Notice those heroic and classically lit close-ups of startled Britons turning their faces to the heavens as an air raid begins. We hadn’t seen close-ups like that since the heroic humanist documentaries of the ‘30s: Coalface (1935), Man of Aran (1934), Song of Ceylon (1934). Here was a plucky solidarity forged in the white heat of want and war and burgeoning welfarism.
Blending this sober factual portrait together with the dramatized ups and downs of fictional characters portrayed by stars Patricia Roc, Eric Portman, Gordon Jackson, Basil Radford, and Naunton Wayne, Millions Like Us depicted a people struggling to reconcile themselves to the sacrifices and compromises required to overcome total war. Playing to an audience of working women greasing the guns and aligning the bearings in the aircraft factories, its evocation of Celia’s passage from lace curtain terrace to war widow carefully tempers the romantic aspirations of women of a certain age with the necessities of an emergency economy. Augmented by Megs Jenkins’ university graduate Gwen Price and Anne Crawford’s Knightsbridge Lyons maid Jennifer Knowles, the film generates a realistic and hard-headed national consensus around Patricia Roc’s Celia. The keynote is reconciliation. The reconciliation of the regions; Gwen is Welsh, Celia’s young husband Fred is Scots. The reconciliation of class; Knightsbridge girl Jennifer wants to marry gruff Yorkshire factory manager Charlie. The reconciliation of cultures; working girls pile in to hear Myra Hess give a recital. The film itself exemplifies producer and industry elder Michael Balcon’s ideal of the reconciliation of Britain’s realist documentary heritage with “tinsel” (entertainment). In the final scene in which at a canteen sing-song Celia comes to terms with her navigator husband’s death over Germany, Jennifer, once reluctant to abandon metropolitan affectations, can be seen in the background bringing up the chorus. In few films does the vernacular iconography of pre-war England, embodied in Humphrey Jennings’ 1939 documentary tribute to British leisure Spare Time, so eloquently serve the making of a new world. If Mrs Miniver (1942) unfolds in a never-never land of flower shows and tea on the lawn, and depictions of American economies — Since You Went Away, Tender Comrade — seemed like so much special pleading to women coming off the night shift, Britain’s national self image has never been so coherent. Hardly surprising that the 1945 election would see the biggest Labour landslide yet recorded.
Four decades later, it is revealing to compare Celia’s grief over suddenly losing her serviceman husband with Iris suddenly losing her mother in Under the Skin (1997). Celia’s dignified stoicism in Millions Like Us has become the model for depictions of grief in British films. Viewed objectively and in high bright light as she sheds a tear before being swept along by the communal spirit, Celia manifests a very British stiff upper lip before adversity.
But as Iris flails before it, society stands by in dismay. In Under the Skin, Carine Adler examines the impact of their mother’s death from cancer on two sisters. Always rivals for her attention, Iris (Samantha Morton) and Rose (Claire Rushbrook) move from resignation to distrust to outright antagonism as they fight over their mother’s things and feelings of resentment that go back years. Films that refuse to judge female characters are rare, and in Iris we find a British heroine struggling to find a way to live when all her options seem closed down by her anger and shock. As the film begins, we see Iris’ stomach in close-up, pores and all, as she draws on her skin and talks about how she always wanted to be like her mother. In a film that plumbs an interior world of sensations and thought, we can almost feel the pressure of the pen on her flesh. Later, Iris and Rose argue in front of commuters at Liverpool station. We are reminded of how shocking, because relatively rare in Britain, those eruptions of private feeling can be when family members row in public.
Carrying the film around with her like an incendiary device, Iris seems to write her sadness, anger, and desire into every shot. This film’s adventurous depiction of feelings finds social realism looking away from the documentary realist consensus that had dominated postwar ideas about British cinema, and toward our cinema’s art school wing typified by Nicolas Roeg and, more recently, Sally Potter (Orlando, 1992) and John Maybury (Love Is the Devil, 1998). Influenced by Wong-Kar-Wai, Adler imported an aesthetic abandon of dizzy hand-held camerawork, jump cuts, slow motion and ‘bad’ focus orchestrated with Massive Attack and The Aloof on the soundtrack. As Iris leaves Rose’ house, having tried to seduce her brother-in-law and hung over on their Scotch, the smeared streetlight and fragmented words and music in her head recall an avant-garde film. Seeking to assert herself, or find a less painful way to be, Iris dons her mother’s clinical wig, a fur coat and cheap sunglasses and goes looking for sex, finding only violent debasement. Shot on 16mm on Merseyside locations, clubs, tatty bedsits, and vandalized phone booths become symptoms of contemporary social breakdown. There is no common ground anymore, only empty places. As Mother’s coffin passes into the oven, Iris describes a sexual encounter in graphic detail. But this is no attempt to affront death by asserting the sensual. And Iris seeks to lose herself not, as Celia has, in a public commonwealth, but by displacing her feelings, becoming an object in a crowd. Dressed like a provincial parody of an upmarket whore, the daughter Iris was becomes as unrecognizable as the ashes she picks up from the crematorium. This orphan gets a job in a lost property office. She dreams that an abandoned mobile rings. It is Mother calling her. Then Mother appears, wraithlike amongst the filing shelves, Rita Tushingham’s quiet self-effacing performance recalling the waif she portrayed in the ’60s New Wave films that first warned of the end of Britain‘s wartime status quo. As open-ended as it is nonjudgmental, Under the Skin finishes as Iris sings at a club, unsure as yet whether this is her true vocation. It is perhaps a measure of the decline of community in postwar Britain, as well as symptomatic of Iris’ uncertain identity, that she seems to be trying her voice out rather than coherently singing the woman’s hurt that is every club singer’s stock in trade. If her voice sounds shaky alongside Celia’s, it is because British social realism, incredibly, is still only exploring the possibilities of female experience.
“Secrets and lies . . . We’re all in pain. Why can’t we share our pain?” Mike Leigh‘s most popular film appeared a year before the sudden death of much-loved philanthropist and “People’s Princess” Diana Spencer shook the nation and saw Britons publicly grieving. The climactic scene of Secrets and Lies (1996) remains historically loaded because, by analogy, it seems to respond to nearly twenty years of divisive Thatcherite economics and moral retrenchment. In the ’80s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society; only individuals rising or falling by their own bootstraps. Funereal in its tone and atmosphere, Secrets and Lies increasingly comes to seem like a wake for a kinder collective status quo. At Roxanne’s 21st birthday party, fresh reconciliations are striven for, bringing together the working-class Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), middle-class Maurice (Timothy Spall) and his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), who is Scottish, and Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Cynthia’s other daughter, who is part West Indian. After years of estrangement and resentment, the Purleys experience a cathartic and fragile coalition. Uniquely, Secrets and Lies found an international audience and Academy recognition for its very British rapprochement.
At Hortense’s adoptive mother’s funeral, the actors’ credits pass by over a long shot of the congregation. All are singing a hymn, except for the pensive Hortense. The dirge-like tone of Andrew Dickson’s score suits Leigh’s portrait of a society stopped dead by emotional paralysis. Far from the “make do and mend” ethos of Millions Like Us, Britain has declined into a society of atomized and conflicted souls, bent on hungrily experiencing their lives but unable to talk about it. Hortense’s need to discover and seek out her biological mother may seem a risky, or even odd, thing to do. Part of the mysterious process of grieving, perhaps. But in principle, Leigh says, the search for a sense of continuity with others is vital in a society so fractured. Like the best of British films, Secrets and Lies is not only about individuals. It is about Us. This is what makes British cinema distinctive.
In an early scene, Maurice, a professional photographer, tries to get a series of clients to smile for the camera. Before his lens pass newly marrieds, a Chinese nurse, a Greek couple, dog lovers, cat lovers, an Indian about to return to the old country to be married —: a veritable potpourri of what Britain has become. Any Briton watching can surely identify with someone here, and we find ourselves smiling along with these people. By putting the whole society in the frame, as it were, Leigh has succeeded in addressing his British audience in a way in which Hollywood films never do. In so many ways, Secrets and Lies charts a progression from the lonely individual — Hortense at the funeral, Cynthia at home — to the collective at Roxanne’s party. Always a principle of cohesion, the generous and avuncular Maurice seems condemned for much of the film to the task of getting people to smile in the bleak moment of a photograph, when not attempting to connect with his childless frustrated wife.
As the funeral sees the cast names “passing through this life” at the bottom of the frame, as it were, cinematographer Dick Pope shoots Hortense and Cynthia’s meeting at Holborn tube station through passing traffic. It is a moment when strangers stop, briefly acknowledging each other amid the tumult. As on other occasions in British films, the director toys with those moments when we are embarrassed yet curious about private exchanges in public places. “Will you get inside!” hisses Roxanne to her mother as Cynthia bawls down the street after her. Later, Maurice implores Roxanne at a bus shelter to return to the house and meet her half-sister and try to reconcile with her mother following Cynthia’s revelation about Hortense. Leigh’s is a film committed to the reconciliation of individual with individual, the public and the private. We have come a long way from the easy consolations of state-sponsored realism. It is a measure of how far we are from the cradle of the postwar Welfare State that Lesley Manville’s superbly rendered social worker wants to help Hortense but finds herself so pushed by a growing caseload that she can give Hortense no more than her lunch hour. In a film in which everyone labours under some sense of regret, Britain searches for a sense of connectedness. Few recent British films have so fluently, so poignantly and amusingly, described contemporary Britons’ attempts to overcome the shock of otherness.
Morvern Callar (2001) signals perhaps the bereaved Briton’s ultimate disconnection from the world around them. When Morvern (Samantha Morton) awakes on Christmas Day to find her boyfriend James dead in the living room, she retreats into herself, haunting the film while those around her continue to commune with the noise and bluster of life. After scenes in which we see Morvern opening presents alongside James’ corpse, quietly touching it as the Christmas tree lights flash on and off behind her, Morvern’s best friend Lanna’s words: “You know you really love someone when you can sit together and not say anything,” come to seem perversely ironic. Finding James’ novel manuscript and following his instructions to send it to the first publisher on the list, Morvern dutifully prints it out, but not before replacing his name with hers. She then hacks the corpse into pieces and raids his bank balance for a holiday in Spain. Grief is the one emotion we know least about. Is she wrong to do this? Does she resent him for taking his life? Is she right to benefit from his words, the best he had to offer? Can she not let him go? Throughout the film, Morvern listens to the tape James made her: “Music for You.” Apparently numbed by her experience and living with his music inside her, Morvern becomes a part of his subjectivity. He lives on through her. We never see her emoting as Celia does. If there is a cauldron of suffering here, it is not for public interpretation or consumption. Individuals rise or fall on their own.
But stifled subjectivity has its price. “I’m sick of your stupid moods. What’s wrong with you? What do you want, a planet of your own?” Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) chides Morvern as they sit, lost on a dirt road somewhere in Spain. We then see Morvern in a lone phone booth, the Spanish sun setting behind her and to the right of the frame. If Celia is at the centre of the frame in the canteen, Morvern inhabits the outskirts of the film, just as she inhabits the outskirts of this life. She fled to Spain on the kind of booze ‘n’ sex binge that drives thousands of 20-something Brits to the accommodation machines and rave clubs of the Costa del Sol. Indeed, British youth was recently described as the most drunken and promiscuous in Europe, contributing to a growing foreign perception of pasty-faced repressives itching to touch down and hit the Sangria. But when Morvern gets there the ravenous coupling and solipsistic pleasure-seeking puts her own mental departure in context. This break does not take Morvern “out of herself.” It reiterates everyone’s isolation.