By Roddy Slorach
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This article is over 11 years, 7 months old
Carl Neville, Zero Books, £9.99
Issue 353

This is a welcome and refreshing little collection of essays looking at the representation of class in recent British film. Its theme is that lad culture and “Cool Britannia”, under New Labour in particular, encouraged the fantasy that “the class system can be wished, or better still, shopped away”.

Two ideas recur throughout the book. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (which Neville rejects) sees liberal democracy as the apex of historical development, where consumerism is the answer to individual needs. The second (which he seems to accept) sees contemporary England as caught between an “apparent modernity and the reality of its deeply embedded semi-feudal social relations”.

The essays avoid discussing the best and most obvious candidates on the subject, such as social realist filmmakers like Ken Loach or Shane Meadows (or even Mike Leigh). Instead they concentrate on more mainstream critically and commercially successful films, particularly those of Danny Boyle.

Neville starts with an enjoyable demolition job on 1995’s Trainspotting, pointing out that the main character endorses in the end the “choose life” consumerist message the film purports to satirise. Telling us “there are no reasons” why heroin use became so prevalent in Scotland and former industrial heartlands, the film (like the book of the same name) ultimately says that it’s cool to rip off your mates if that’s what it takes to get rich.

Neville goes on to describe another big hit for Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire, as an Oliver Twist for the 21st century. Here India is “a fantasy projection of England, a Dickensian world of fixed hierarchies and caste and pure-hearted beggar children who fall in with a bad crowd and are eventually rescued by benign patrons”. The good Victorian bourgeois is replaced by the corporate media, “conferring riches and status through quiz or talent shows”.

Another chapter examines a film Neville sees as unfairly neglected. Stephen Frears’s The Queen depicts the monarchy as the old establishment in conflict with a new modernity, personified by Tony Blair. Following the death of Diana, Blair eulogised her as “the People’s Princess”, cultivating the extraordinary hysteria which ensued to position his new government as a unifying and stabilising national force, simultaneously rescuing the monarchy from public disdain. The same chapter contains a passing pop at another massive hit, Mamma Mia – but perhaps some things are sacrosanct.

Elsewhere Neville briefly surveys the “hooligan genre”, discussing (mainly football) violence and its links with far-right nationalism. The book closes with a look at two other films about individuals who escape the rat race, Morvern Callar and the brilliant Sexy Beast, rightly describing the latter’s Don Logan as British film’s scariest and most memorable baddie of recent years.

As often happens with film reviews, some of these essays don’t fully develop what are often interesting points. Neville suggests that recent events make a return to more class politics likely. Let’s hope he’s right, and not just about the movies.

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