'This search for the true meaning of Britishness is not new.'The Rank Organisation

A couple of years ago it was the debate about ‘British values’, and more recently the national conversation has been framed around the meaning and identity of ‘Brexit Britain’. Britain seems to be an uncertain sort of kingdom, still searching for just what it is that unites it.

This identity crisis involves a post-imperial, multi-cultural nation much of whose global  power has faded. As a result, it can’t reconcile its past with its present, and doesn’t have a vision for its future. I find it reassuring to examine Britain’s longstanding identity crisis through the lens of film, and enjoy the creativity it has prompted. 

This search for the true meaning of Britishness is not new. During the 1940s, in the face of the expanding fascism all over the world, Britain wanted to define itself as its antithesis. But what exactly would that be? Powell and Pressburger’s films, particularly The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, made in 1943, explored these issues in a way that is wittily patriotic, yet more textured and less jingoistic than might be expected from that era, especially having been made under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Information. For instance, British complicity in Boer War atrocities and First World War torture are both heavily implied. The sincere naivety and righteousness of our protagonist Major Candy is pitted against the morally slippery and pragmatic government officials. The film ends by explicitly saying that Candy’s idea of Britain, one that fights honourably, can no longer exist in the face of the Nazi threat.

But, importantly, the film has throughout implicitly suggested that that Candy’s Britain never existed in the first place. At the same time as subtly questioning Britain’s rose-tinted vision of itself, the film offers a beautiful portrait of international friendship between an Englishman and a German that is quietly radical in an era where German nationals living in Britain were routinely imprisoned and viewed with intense suspicion.

Nazism and “German-ness” are clearly separated, friendship and solidarity are celebrated, and Powell and Pressburger’s vision of Britain at its best is an instinctively inclusive one.  As it is argued in their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death:Love and truth and friendship. Those qualities, and those qualities alone, can build a new world today and must build a better one tomorrow.”

“The sincere naivety and righteousness of our protagonist Major Candy is pitted against the morally slippery and pragmatic government officials”

The decades following the Second World War brought with them huge and varied social and economic changes and with them films that were ready to shake up any complacent visions of a progressive modernity that we may hold. These films seem to speak particularly to the zeitgeist of their time, yet the divisions in society they show are still strikingly relevant to today’s debates. Life in much of Britain was worlds away from the metropolitan images of glamorous pop culture present in much of the media in the latter half of the 20th century.

Ken Loach, for instance, in 1969’s devastating Kes, depicts everyday rural life in a declining Yorkshire mining community where hope struggles to survive. My Beautiful Launderette (1985) is a film that both portrays and ironically subverts the values of Thatcher’s Britain, all with a soft naturalism and an endearing sense of humour. Trainspotting entered the national consciousness like an electro-synth explosion in 1996. Set it the late 80s, it responded to a national feeling of optimism and a consumerist vision of modernity prevalent at the time of release by showcasing the energy and the vibrancy of those left behind by a mainstream capitalist society. This film had a huge cultural impact and was the real home of Cool Britannia: looking back it still has the power of its verve and authenticity. Tony Blair partying with pop stars? Not so much.

So what kind of contributions to British film have added something new to the debate from the last few years? Amma Asante’s work in reclaiming the period drama for modern, multicultural Britain offers something  truly inspirational. She keeps the to the lush form and style of this much-criticised genre while dispelling assumptions that period dramas must always be non-diverse and apolitical. Asante’s two recent films, 2013’s Belle and 2016’s A United Kingdom both tell stories about identity that explore aspects of gender, race and class with intelligence and warmth. The fact that both of the fascinating stories that inspired these films are true, yet little known, is a provocation about which kind of stories get told and how this affects our ideas about what our history looked like.

It is a vision of culture that can reconcile the past and the present by examining both anew, and demonstrates that a more thoughtful and inclusive conception of Britishness can be fit easily into a format that many are used to and many love