The Europeanness of British Cinema: Considering “National” Cinemas from a Continental Perspective
This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.
As I argue in this essay, the study of “British cinema” is, at the same time, the study of European cinema. We might well ask, of course, in the immanent contexts of “Brexit,” what British films have to offer for the rest of Europe. For anyone interested in understanding Europe’s past, present and perhaps precarious future, I suggest, this question is a revealing one; above all, as it touches on the many ambiguities and ironies of Brexit itself. In the end, we may still conclude that British cinema need not mean so much to other Europeans. But for British cinema, at least, Europe continues to matter a great deal.
Britain, as the Brexit vote seemed to suggest, does not see itself as part of Europe. Nevertheless, in considering the significance of Europe to British filmmaking, we find ourselves asking whether we can make sense of the latter without or beyond Europe as part of its very formation. Indeed, to what extent can we even understand modern Britain itself as distinct from the EU of which, from 1973 until now, it was a part? Almost two decades before the EU referendum, in his book This Blessed Plot, Hugo Young took the Eurosceptic lobby to task for this same blind spot: its inability to recognize that the UK was the country it had become as a result of its then quarter-century of EU membership, not in spite of it (Young 1998: 502).
Young, in this case, was looking mainly at the economic and administrative ties that, post-referendum, have provided the knottiest problems in the Brexit negotiations. But the area of culture, and especially cinema, is even more difficult to separate into discrete national boxes. This is because film—theatrical feature films, at least—rarely, if ever, exist as entities produced and consumed within specific national boundaries. This is an academic issue for film and cultural studies, as much as it is one for those invested in the film industry. As Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau have considered, even if we wished it to be so (a debatable point in itself), film can rarely be equated with a culture of “the people” in national, even folkloric terms, since it operates in a “material situation” that is ”fundamentally complex” (1992: 3). Cinema’s very expense prohibits such a possibility: the millions of pounds involved in the production of even lower-budget films demands they be financed with trans-national co-production or distribution deals in place. “British cinema”, in other words, is frequently envisaged as “European cinema” from its inception.
That films like the Harry Potter series are produced through foreign investment (from Hollywood, in this instance) is a well-known fact. But less frequently recognized is the fact that similar, and in this case more European production frameworks, underpin films we might otherwise assume to epitomize “British cinema.” The social-realist films of director Ken Loach, such as Land and Freedom, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and I Daniel Blake, are a case in point. Loach was, at best, an ambivalent opponent of Brexit, given his open hostility to what he sees as the EU’s neoliberal agenda. His films focus predominantly on those concerns both he, and the Corbynite Labour Party he most recently endorsed, saw as more pressing than Britain’s membership of the EU: social and economic inequalities; the hardships of the gig economy; the failings of the British welfare system. And yet, Loach also knows that his films largely depend on European investment, and in turn, the mainland European audiences that go to his films— typically, in greater numbers than those watching in the UK (Jones 2016). As one of the most celebrated British cineastes, Loach’s films exemplify the paradox of British, or indeed any other “national cinema:” namely, that it only comes into being once it is identified as such by a critical, academic and film-going body outside its country of production. Any critical study of national filmmaking contexts within Europe needs to take this fact into account.
It isn’t just Loach’s films, though, that exemplify British cinema’s debt to Europe. Recent work from both industry analysts and the European Commission has shown how, alongside French productions, British films are the most widely exported throughout European markets (European Audiovisual Observatory 2018; Screen Sector Task Force 2017). The British literary film does not stop with Harry Potter: adaptations of both classic and modern novelists, from Jane Austen to Ian McEwan, remain staples of a potent and recognizable British export brand. Yet, one of the effects of Brexit on the film industry, if Britain leaves the European Economic Area, might be to limit the free movement and hence accessibility of such films in cinemas within EU territories, since they would no longer be EU products.
British films, in short, need Europe. Celebrated British film companies such as Working Title, whose output ranges from Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary, to Atonement and Darkest Hour, may seem to exemplify a “British” success story, in terms of their settings, stories, and British stars. Much of their work, though, has been made in a wider deal with the French production company StudioCanal, who are also major film distributors in the key European markets of France and Germany (see Meir 2019). While often seen as more of an Anglo-American company (its parent company is the Hollywood studio Universal), Working Title’s films have also made use of European actors and locations as part of their broader strategy (as seen, for example, in both Atonement and Darkest Hour). One of the company’s most successful films, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, actually had its protagonist travel from London to Paris and, eventually to the South of France: a cinematic display of the funding frameworks holding the film together.
Mr. Bean’s Holiday is a good example, moreover, of the ways in which continental Europe, rather than the landscapes of its own islands, maintain an ironic hold over the imagination of “British film”. Again, while Britain’s transatlantic cultural dialogue has been a dominant one since the end of World War Two, the persistence of Europe as a popular part of this imaginary— indeed, in some respects a much more influential part—should not be understated. In film, this is not the case merely with transnational European films like Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Even the more successful “independent” British films of recent years indicate the elusive nature of a culturally British cinema, and more distinctly, underline the British cultural debt to Europe. The Inbetweeners Movie and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie were made by Channel 4 Films and BBC Films respectively, both of them big-screen adaptations of popular British television comedies. Both films were box-office hits in their country of origin, though are not widely known outside the UK. Yet both films are shot and set, for the most part, in mainland Europe—the Spanish resort of Magaluf, and Malia, in Crete, in the case of The Inbetweeners; and the French Riviera in Absolutely Fabulous—for the simple reason that these are where most Britons spend their holidays.
As such films indicate, while many Brits see “Europe” as a separate entity, an idea of Europe as a physical and, in some respects, cultural destination is woven into the fabric of the British imagination, Brexit notwithstanding. It was Boris Johnson, no less, then in his capacity as the Leave campaign’s main driver, who appealed the day after the EU referendum to “our common European civilization”, stating that “our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future… travelling to the continent” (in Anon 2016). It is one of the ironies of Britain’s EU withdrawal that the European holiday that Brexit will actually make less convenient, and probably more expensive, is viewed both as a British rite of passage, as well as an inalienable national right. For this nation of short-haul budget flyers (the UK leads Europe in this area) and French second-home owners, the European holiday is a constituent part of the British way of life—as the above films, Mr. Bean’s Holiday included, clearly indicate.
The idea of British cinema being one truly invested in Europe, though, remains subject to debate, despite these broader contexts. It was once said that Britain can never really have its own national cinema on account of the language it shares with the USA (Roddick 1985: 5). The amenability of English-language films to the American audience has meant that courting Hollywood investment, and making films in the style of popular mainstream cinema, has recently become the dominant model for “British” films (we might again look at the Harry Potter series, or the James Bond films, as examples of this, but also more mid-budget films like Darkest Hour, or any of the Bridget Jones movies). The now dissolved UK Film Council, established under the New Labour government in 1998, was clear in its intention to produce broad-appeal films in this vein (see Doyle et al 2015). At this same time, Britain withdrew from European film-funding schemes such as Eurimages, viewing them as insufficient value for money, and a distraction from their pro-Hollywood stance (ibid: 61).
Critics of this UK Film Council model, which continues to exert an influence on the kinds of films made in the UK today, lament its turn from a more modest scale of filmmaking, and from an interest in working with wider European producers. In the words of one former film executive, British producers “Brexited” long before any referendum took place (in Spicer 2018: 605). It is another irony, though, of recent British film that some of its biggest successes have been born out of a fertile collaboration between Britain and its European filmmaking neighbours. The recent Paddington films were popular and critical hits both in the UK but also in mainland Europe, and especially in France. When we realize that Paddington is actually an Anglo-French production—StudioCanal, who in fact owns the intellectual property rights to the Paddington brand, oversees the series’ production and distribution—this fact becomes less surprising. As the former head of StudioCanal’s UK division sagely put it, speaking after the EU referendum, Paddington’s success demonstrated that we don’t need to put barriers up to reap mutual benefits (in Pulver 2016). Cinema, to use the economic parlance, needn’t be a zero-sum game.
But the Paddington films also offer indication of a representative type of “European cinema,” in terms of its narrative content, not just its production contexts. In mainland European territories, where trans-national production is common, linguistic, cultural and geographic border crossing is more familiar. Paddington appears, by contrast, to epitomize the more narrowly London-centric tendencies of popular British films. Paddington’s story of immigrant expectations and disappointment, though, and the efforts to find a home within the diverse metropolis, is already one indebted to London’s history and persistence as a hub of cosmopolitan influence, from the European (Paddington’s friend Mr. Gruber, a one-time Kindertransport refugee) to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora shaping Paddington’s West London locale. Such films illustrate that even some of the most cherished icons of “British” life, like the capital city itself, are indivisible from their historical connection, and continued relationship, both to Europe and to the wider world.
StudioCanal’s intent to capitalize on European IPs for European markets, especially if they also happen to be in English—and therefore more easily exportable to the American market—may well be seen as economically opportune. Yet there is a further sense in which StudioCanal’s investment in a project like Paddington exemplifies a broader European, rather than just strategically trans-national identity in contemporary film production. In Cosmopolitan Vision, Ulrich Beck argued for what he saw as the “banal cosmopolitanism” of major European cities, in terms of their diversity and eclecticism (2006: 41)—precisely those aspects that, as highlighted above, films such as the Paddington series center around and espouse. The films’ “European” qualities are highlighted by their un-rootedness; their resistance to being pegged down in terms of one specific bounded territory, both in terms of their content and production contexts. StudioCanal’s project with Paddington shows some of the benefits of rethinking “British cinema” as a European cinema that incorporates a diverse Britain as part of its broader vision.
Looking at “British cinema” in the contexts of Brexit, then, is instructive to our understanding of what actually makes up such a cinema. More to the point, examining where this cinema comes from, and what it represents, highlights its very inconsistency and instability as a “national” product. Just as it reminds us, then, of the plural and already diverse nature of a “national” industry and culture, it encourages academics working in these fields to rethink their own subject of study and the critical language used to make sense of it. Like any national cinema study, “British cinema” as a field is not merely too restricted in terms of what it actually describes; it also risks reducing the discussion to a series of limited methodological criteria, bound by the illusorily integral vision of the nation state. As Beck also argues, it is this same “methodological nationalism” that, often inadvertently, blinds its users to the narrowness of their own critical frameworks—or, at its most problematic, reproduces the isolated, introspective perspectives such approaches might otherwise wish to critique.
One further lesson we might learn from this, then, is that all those involved in the analysis of British or any other European cinemas might be alert to the limits and discursive dangers of “national cinema” as a term and discipline. Does it even make sense to talk of distinct “European cinemas” at all, with the institutional and cultural boundaries that plural term implies? “British cinema”, as a descriptive category, is no more precise nor tangible than is the very idea of “Great Britain” as a wholly self-sufficient island nation. In the same way that we try, and fail, to fully extricate the UK from its history of European membership, by the same token, we fall into a methodological and epistemological trap once we try to try to separate British film from its own historical relationship to its European neighbours.
British cinema, in other words, is European cinema; and only by becoming something radically different—something much poorer, at least in this writer’s view—could we imagine it as anything otherwise. Europeans, and especially those still committed to the European project, may well care less about the future of “British film”. But the respective histories of British cinema and Europe, and their possible futures, remain deeply interconnected.
Neil Archer is Senior Lecturer in Film at Keele University, UK, and has published widely on Hollywood, English and other European Cinemas. His previous books include Beyond a Joke: Parody in English Film and Television Comedy(Bloomsbury, 2017). He is currently preparing a book, Cinema and Brexit, to be published later this year, also by Bloomsbury.
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Beck, U. (2006). Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge: Polity.
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Young, H. (1998). This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. New York: Overlook.
Photo: Still from Joe Wright, Atonement.
Published on June 3, 2020.