In his critique of the British approach to heritage, Robert Hewison argued that museums were guilty of creating a sanitised, detached version of the past, divorced from much of its reality, controversy and connection to modern living, which stifled the capacity for creative change. Writing of English heritage he made the strong claim that ‘individually, museums are fine institutions, dedicated to the high values of preservation, education and truth; collectively, their growth in numbers points to the imaginative death of this country’.
Watching Joe Wright’s account of Churchill’s precarious first steps in his tenure, until they are triumphantly cemented in history with the “never surrender” speech, one is left with a similar feeling about cinema and TV in the UK. This film follows on from The Crown, Dunkirk and Churchill – they often feature the same actors even, if you are an aristocratic character actor, it’s time to buy that second home. As with Hewison’s criticism of museums, each of these is a fine work individually, but collectively they point to a dangerous obsession with an idealised version of Britishness perfected in these war years.
The French talk of the longue duree perspective on history, which emphasises the long term impact of history over the “evental history” view which focuses on the immediate events. It is impossible to not feel some noble stirring and inspiration in Oldman’s bravura performance of that speech. But the longue duree view tells us we are still paying the price for it. At the time it was crucial and positive, but it now dominates the psyche of every Little Englander. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that Brexit would not exist without that speech. Churchill himself would be appalled by the likes of Farage, and UKIP, and they would probably hate his liberal views now. But that is immaterial, in the long term view, the speech has become an integral part of British identity, a crowd symbol around which the British gather.
To put aside these reservations momentarily and view the film in isolation. It features a central performance from Oldman that goes the full Churchill. The man was something of a caricature of himself, and so representations are posed with a problem of toning it up or down. Lithgow’s portrayal in the Crown is more measured, and Brian Cox’s in Churchill more nuanced, but there is an excess to Oldman’s portrayal which is like one of the man’s indulgent breakfasts. As with Atonement, Joe Wright captures war time Britain effectively but with a touch of romance. The plot follows the equivocations in potentially seeking peace with Germany, which with our hindsight view looks always to have been an unwise course, but was a reasonable consideration to pursue at the time. The weakness in the film is the pivotal ‘speaking to the British public’ scene on the underground, where all those plucky Brits chirp that they will never surrender. This scene is corny, rings untrue and lurches close to the sort of parody that The Comic Strip presents The Strike perfected (“Oxford and Cambridge say aye!”).
But it is nigh on impossible to view these films in isolation of current events. One perspective is that they highlight the importance of standing against the far right, while they simultaneously appeal to the right’s sense of preventing invasion. They have appeal then across the political spectrum, but culturally for Britain they are an example of what Patrick Wright termed the ‘museumification’ of the country. As with the heritage industry the film industry exerts an influence on modern consciousness, with these representations of the national past establishing a form of ‘cultural authenticity’ but this is distinct from a question of historiographical truth, and is subject to specific, and highly political, interpretations. When I was growing up in the 70s we were just coming out from the direct influence of this history. The war and everything associated with it was venerated, and it took a movement like punk to reject the country house and vicars version of Britain we were fed culturally. This second wave of representations establishes a new dominant vision of Britain, mired in nostalgia and an idealised version of its own glory. For the next ten years we are pulling the lid of the quaint shortbread biscuit tin over ourselves, until a youth movement like punk comes along again to redefine our national identity. The longue duree ain’t over yet.