Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Postcards from the 48% –Edinburgh Film Festival Review

On 23 June 2018, the second anniversary of the British vote to leave the European Union, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London to demand a second referendum to decide whether the public should accept the final deal. 400 miles away, the Edinburgh International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of David Wilkinson’s ‘talking heads’ documentary Postcards from the 48% in which the director tours the country to canvas the opinion of ‘remainers’, some of the 16,141,241 who voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union.

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Wilkinson re-runs the debate that many voters are tired of, preaching to the converted. The interviewees include such divisive figures as Sir Vince Cable and Nick Clegg, both of whom opposed university tuition fees in the 2010 Liberal Democrat election manifesto but allowed the coalition government to triple them as members of the Coalition Government, and Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor behind former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ that influenced the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. As the expression goes, with friends like these …

He visits Miriam Margoyles, whose house is the closest in the UK to France. He takes us to The Convention, a two day conference on ‘broken politics’ held in London prior to the June 2017 snap election in which speakers included the novelist Ian McEwan and economist Will Hutton. You’d think from the film that the Convention was about Brexit rather than a failure to grow political engagement.

When Wilkinson interviews historian A C Grayling and ‘New European’ editor Matt Kelly, the arguments are erudite and succinct. Yes, the referendum was advisory and the decision to trigger Article 50 unnecessary. Yes, the impact on UK business will be severe. However, Wilkinson’s range of interviewees doesn’t reflect his audience. Too many people on screen are white, middle-aged or older and middle class. By not showing the other side, he is effectively refusing to engage with working families and socially marginalised, the very groups who need to be persuaded that the decision to leave the European Union is not in the UK’s best long-term interests.

Wilkinson’s tour includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. He visits Lush Cosmetics, which sells products made in the UK by European Union workers to Europe.

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Political documentaries need human stories to persuade audiences that the status quo – remaining subject to the European Court of Justice and enjoying the freedom of movement, goods and capital – is preferable to the alternative. However, Wilkinson uses the tired technique of interviewing celebrities and experts, who lack the authenticity to influence the opinion of his audience.

Running at almost two hours, Postcards from the 48% is a cry from the heart of sorts, but aligns the Remain argument with politically toxic figures and outright eccentricity. I almost applauded when Wilkinson interviewed some young people, two members of OFOC – ‘Our Future Our Choice’ – though the pressure group speaks mainly to the student group and has, to date, only 6,700 Facebook likes compared with the anti-EU UK Independence Party’s 580,824.

Wilkinson reminds us that the UK has strong ties with other European countries, taking us to the Polish War Memorial and reflecting on the part Polish pilots paid in the Battle of Britain in World War Two. This is the closest he gets to an emotional appeal, arguing that the UK is at its best when it works within a wide coalition of the righteous.

Can a documentary make a difference, allowing the UK electorate to accept that its decision to leave the European Union is wrong? Maybe not this documentary, but there are other stories to be told.

Postcards from the 48% received its Edinburgh premiere on 23 June 2018 and will be screened across the UK on 6 July

On Chesil Beach – Review

Ten minutes into On Chesil Beach and I forgot I was watching a British film. Where were the colourful supporting cast, played by representatives of the British acting establishment? What happened to the earnest attempt to seem serious and meaningful, announcing ‘this is literature’? What I saw – and fell in love with – were two newly-weds, both bright, both promising, both eminently likeable negotiating a moment of intimacy without the slightest idea of what to expect. And then –

Adapted by Ian McEwan from his slender (166 page) 2007 novel, the film is set in 1962, at the time of emerging social mobility and political awakening. Young people found they had a voice and a cause – preserving the Earth from nuclear oblivion – worth canvassing for. Edward (Billy Howle) is a young man from a middle class background who worked for and got a First Class degree. Opportunities appear open to him in spite of the mental illness experienced by his mother (Anne-Marie Duff), a bright artist who received a bang on the head from a train door – a gasp making moment – and hasn’t been right since. Wandering around Oxford delirious with his news – Edward didn’t study there but lives in the area – he meets Florence (Saoirse Ronan), who is handing out leaflets for a local ‘Ban the Bomb’ protest. Florence has a First Class degree too, and musical ambitions – she fronts a string quartet. She is attracted by Edward’s good spirits and his lack of expectation. They spend time together – Edward has tea with Florence’s parents. Florence brings out the best in Edward’s mother, with whom she communicates through art. ‘Marry that girl,’ orders Edward’s father. But they cannot learn how to be married from a book.

McEwan and the director Dominic Cooke, who makes an auspicious debut here, eschew plot for telling incident. At one point, Florence’s father (Samuel West) invites Edward for a game of tennis for the purpose of roundly thrashing him and asserting his fragile masculinity. When Florence turns up at the end of the game, her father is enraged. How much did she see? How dare she turn up? For that moment, Florence was the brunt of her father’s shame. He was caught out in his facile game and – who knows – maybe Edward played poorly to let him win. This scene isn’t discussed further – it is shown as a flashback – but hangs in the air, placing us in a particular era when the privileged felt truly threatened by the emerging middle class.

This parade of shame is extended to Edward as well. In a flashback to his university years, we see him defend another young man from abuse, resorting to violence. Edward’s actions repel his friend, making him all too aware of his own masculine shortcomings. They are not reconciled.

These actions are contrasted with the start of the honeymoon at an English seaside hotel, where a meal is taken in their room with waiting staff, somewhat embarrassingly on hand. The embarrassment of being watched is acute – and we also know that the staff spilled the wine beforehand, replacing it with water. Expectation practically crushes the couple.

Does the film have anything to say to a modern young audience, more sexually knowledgeable than their grandparents? I think it does. It portrays English society not as opposites but as fragile layers placed on top of one another. It dramatises the possibilities of youth – Florence’s hopes for her quartet, Edward overflowing with erudition (‘therefore I love you’). Yet this unmakes the traditional romance, where Florence’s proposition in the light of awkward events is monumentally misunderstood.

For 90 minutes of the film’s running time, the drama lives and breathes. We are captivated by both Howle and Ronan – so effective together, they have been reteamed in the forthcoming screen adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, in an all-star cast headed by Annette Bening. Then the film decides to adopt the narrative structure of Atonement, leaping forward to the 1970s and beyond. The coda is utterly pointless. Just as we didn’t need to go into the Mothership in the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we certainly didn’t need this. The rest of the film simply isn’t as on the nose.

Yet when the writing, acting and direction are as good as they are here, I can forgive the coda. Ronan continues to prove herself to be frighteningly, nay explosively talented. She’s already excelled in my favourite release of the year so far, Lady Bird. She remakes herself in every role. If she never appears in a superhero movie – the graveyard of acting talent – I’ll be delirious. For now, On Chesil Beach is another showcase of her perfectionism – a Saoirse thing.