After a ten-year absence from the cinema, the English national character is in the frame again, even for US directors. What does England look like now?by Mark Cousins / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Three Oscar-nominated films this year attempt a portrait of England. The concurrence of Stephen Frears’s Mrs Henderson Presents, Woody Allen’s Match Point and Terrence Malick’s The New World is a surprise because, beyond travelogue, England hasn’t been a subject for cinema in some time.
Back in the 1950s, the Ealing studio made a series of comedies that seemed bent on capturing something of the English national character. And in the 1980s, the idea of England was used as a starting-point for Merchant Ivory, My Beautiful Laundrette and Derek Jarman’s experimental The Last of England. But that idea seems to have fallen from movie favour in the last decade. Ken Loach has set most of his recent films in Scotland or the Hispanic world. Even Mike Leigh’s work seems to start with the idea of character rather than nation. America has John Sayles, but England seems to have no equivalent state-of-the-nation filmmaker.
This can’t be because the idea of Englishness is of no interest. There has been a steady drip-feed of articles on the subject since Scottish and Welsh devolution at least. A more plausible explanation is the fact that previous films that attempted to capture the character of Albion now seem dated. The popular but now mostly forgotten 1940s films with actors Arthur Askey, Jessie Matthews and Gracie Fields suggested that cheeriness was at the root of Englishness—as, in their very different way, did the Carry On films. Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico and The Man in the White Suit put eccentricity at the heart of the nation. Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seemed to say that tolerance was to be cherished in the English. And reliability was at the core of movies like Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve.
Cheery-eccentric-tolerant-reliable was a decent enough stab at a national portrait, but it was a portrait in response to war. By the late 1950s, it was being queried. The most influential dissenter was Scottish director Lindsay Anderson. In This Sporting Life, England was dirt poor and sexually repressed. His later films If… and Britannia Hospital made no attempt to hide his hatred for what he saw as the timidity, inertia and conservatism of his adoptive nation.
Anderson begat Derek Jarman’s equally enraged denunciations of what he saw as an English garden defiled by Thatcherism. Both were master directors, but in hindsight, this timid-inert-conservative “essentialism” was an…