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5 Noteworthy films about British social class

2020 was a tumultuous year for UK politics alongside the chaotic challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. In October, Tory MP’s rejected Marcus Rashford’s free school meal plan despite 4.2 million UK children living in poverty in 2019 with the problem only set to get worse. In December 2020, the Child Poverty Action Group released that 9 in 10 low-income families with children are now worse off because of the pandemic.

I have to wonder to what extent the film industry is implicit in maintaining this bourgeois utopia that conveniently sidesteps the realities of poverty in the UK. While the British film industry is undeniably diverse and forward-thinking, the image of Britishness that seems to pervade mainstream culture is one of either aristocracy or a kind of ambiguous middle class. For every American that is obsessed with the idea of us drinking tea, you know there has been a few viewings of a period drama where Keira Knightley gallivants around in a dress. In particular, Richard Curtis should probably take responsibility for much of the mythologisation of British culture: making a whole generation of people think you can run an unsuccessful bookshop and live in a townhouse in Notting Hill is a true feat.

And at the other end of the spectrum? Films that cannot be described without the prefix of words like “gritty” or “political”. I am referring specifically to the works of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold. But to put these films in such a reductive box is a complete waste. If the figures above show anything, the work of these directors is not only political, but one of the only endeavours towards any sort of social realism in modern British cinema.

Rather than watching Hugh Grant stutter on about something or other this weekend, how about one of these noteworthy explorations of social class in Britain?

Source: Film Comment

1. Kes (1969)

Ken Loach’s “Kes” follows Billy, a working-class boy who struggles both at home and at school. Billy seems to be destined to a future at the coal mine until he discovers his own sense of fulfilment by training a kestrel that he finds in the art of falconry. The film is not only visually stunning, filled with beautiful, organically shot scenes of Billy and Kes, but a scathing condemnation of the opportunities available to working class people in the 1960s and the British education system. “Kes” is shockingly relevant today: while education reform has occurred, the 11-plus test that Loach indicts so harshly in the film is still in place 50 years later.

Source: Letterboxd


2. Meantime (1983)

Filmed on location around East London, Mike Leigh’s “Meantime” moves away from narrative convention and instead opts for a series of meandering tableaux of the working-class Pollock family and themes of unemployment and youth culture under Thatcher’s Britain. “Meantime” is the screen debut of Gary Oldman and the third film of Tim Roth who brilliantly plays Colin, a somewhat tragic character that reminds us of those that are marginalised and forgotten by a Tory government.

Source: Arts ATL

3. Fish Tank (2009)

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, “Fish Tank” takes the universal themes of youth and the isolation and disillusion that come with it, and places them in the setting of an East London council estate. The film follows 15-year-old Mia as she navigates the thoughts and feelings brought on by her mum’s new boyfriend Conor while simultaneously trying to pursue a career as a dancer.

While the film’s beautiful cinematography makes it tempting to romanticise the relationship that forms between Mia and Conor, played by Michael Fassbender in a brilliantly understated way, “Fish Tank” is a sobering reminder of just how vulnerable young people like Mia are. Music also features prominently in the film alongside Mia’s dance routines and in one particular instance Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” is transformed into a melancholy, coming-of-age anthem.

Source: Empire

4. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” follows Daniel Blake in the aftermath of a heart attack as he is declared unfit to work by his doctor yet unable to claim employment support allowance. As if this story wasn’t frustrating enough, Daniel meets Katie, a single-mother unable to provide for her two young children; together they navigate the ridiculous hoops they must jump through to receive the help they need, making tragic sacrifices along the way. “I, Daniel Blake” is a stark reminder of those that are failed by the UK welfare system.

Source: Letterboxd

5. Archipelago (2010)

In British cinema, the idea of middle-class is not something that’s clearly sign-posted or

self-reflexive: rather, it’s an omnipresent, unexplained backdrop that allows the kind of shenanigans that Richard Curtis loves to just go on unquestioned. In Joanna Hogg’s second feature “Archipelago”, the idea of middle-class is at the forefront of the film. We follow a family on holiday in the Isles of Scilly as they navigate… well, normal, middle-class things. It’s only with Joanna Hogg’s unflinching camera that we realise the classist microaggressions in what they discuss. In fact, there are painstaking moments that examine the relationship between the family and the live-in cook, some of the most awkward dining scenes ever documented and uncomfortable sequences of Edward (Tom Hiddleston) discussing an upcoming trip to Africa to try and stop the spread of AIDS.

Words by Amber Rawlings

Instagram: @amberrawlings

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