A Brexit Trilogy

GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (2017)

Brexit – is it humanity asserting its freedom to be perverse in the face of global capitalism, or is it just a backward-leaning movement composed of people whose preciousness about their ‘British identity’ makes you wonder who the real ‘snowflakes’ are? I don’t know, and whatever this is, it isn’t going to help.

Nevertheless it is hard to watch certain films without thinking about it. In this one Josh O’Connor gives a great central performance as Tom, a young farmer in Yorkshire who is resigned to struggling with the upkeep of his ageing parents’ farm, a situation not helped when his father (Ian Hart) suffers a stroke.

Happiness – like dialogue – is in short supply and Tom only manages to snatch it from the occasional short and brutish sexual encounter in a toilet cubicle. When one of his conquests asks, afterwards: ‘Can we go for a pint?’ Tom’s answer is memorably short and brutish too: ‘We? No.’

It takes a Romanian immigrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), to coax him out of his sulk, a process more physical than verbal. Watching them have sex is a bit like seeing part of the (impressively shot) landscape being manipulated into life, as if Gheorghe were waking some kind of naturally-occurring stone gargoyle.

A genuinely affecting love story is thus wrenched from the unpromising soil, it’s only weak point being Gheorghe. It isn’t the performance, it’s the character: there isn’t enough of it. At one point he calls Romania a ‘dead’ country and says that you can’t throw a rock there without hitting an old woman crying for her lost children. This gives us some idea of how he spent his time in his homeland (throwing rocks at old women) but it’s one of the few details we are given. His sexuality aside, he is mostly seen in terms of his CV – a hard worker with farming experience, and ideas about turning the business around by selling sheep’s cheese.

Here, then is the progressive anti-Brexit moral – immigration is a good thing, we need to open ourselves up, literally, to the outside world, not become entrenched in our past. The problem is that Gheorghe winds up as not much more than a cog in the global capitalist system. A very attractive cog it must be said, but that only makes him into so much (processed) meat. Tom gets to grow but poor Gheorghe, unable to stay in a dead country and getting his edges rubbed off in this one, really does seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

WHERE THERE’S A WILL (1955)

On the other hand maybe this is a deliberately-intended irony; or maybe it’s simply inappropriate to consider God’s Own Country in terms of Brexit (I have no idea if director Francis Lee had any conscious interest in reflecting it). It’s even less likely that Vernon Sewell’s Where There’s A Will was intended as a comment on Brexit, especially as it was made in 1955. But still.

I saw this on Freeview channel Talking Pictures TV, which does a nice line in what they now call ‘vintage’ cinema. But just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. Was I the only viewer to see in Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952), starring Bela Lugosi and almost-forgotten drag act Arthur Lucan, echoes of the current (as I write) spat between Theresa May and Vladimir Putin? Well maybe, but that isn’t going to stop me.

WTAW is based on a play (by R F Delderfield) and you can tell, because Sewell’s direction isn’t particularly dynamic on this occasion. But although this is a comedy with no big laughs, the performances are lively enough to compensate for it, and the film is generous enough to give even minor characters their due.

A London family inherit a farm in the middle of nowhere. Three of them want to sell (or lease) it ASAP (including George Cole in wide boy mode and his mother-in-law Dandy Nichols, a sour-faced widow) but two aren’t so sure, notably Nichols’ brother Alfie (Leslie Dwyer) who, inspired by a  memory of visiting the place when younger, wants to take it on and start a new life away from the city. Encouraging him in this is the housekeeper, Annie (Kathleen Harrison), who was hoping to inherit the farm but then had her expectations scotched by the non-appearance of a will.

In the city Alfie works in a Turkish baths and although he doesn’t actually ‘bathe Turks’ as Annie thinks (he ‘regulates the steam’) this notion of escape from foreign influences suggest a Brexiteer mentality, especially as his dream is not economically viable, since the farm is mortgaged to a rival farming family, and it’s clear that the sensible option is to sell. His dreams, however, are all of ‘sinking a spade into his own land’.

At the same time the dream makes a kind of immigrant of Alfie himself. I’m not sure if Delderfield named ‘Windrush Farm’ after the ship that brought so many West Indian immigrants to England in 1948, but it’s certainly made clear that our hero has crossed a border. When Annie offers to give Alfie the money he needs on the condition that he marries her he reacts with horror: ‘It just ain’t English!’, he cries, comparing her suggestion to the bartering of goats for wives in ‘the East’.

But the most striking exchange in the film doesn’t involve Alfie at all. An official (Michael Shepley) has come to announce that the ‘non-productive’ farm is to be taken over by the government – when this is met with scepticism by an elderly farm worker (Norman MacOwan), the official points out how much the farm worker’s wages have increased over the years due to state intervention. The worker replies that when he used to live in a tied cottage he got most of his needs met for free, whereas now he has to pay (increasingly high prices) for everything – thus he scornfully dismisses ‘progress’, and walks off.

The tone of this exchange is quite different from anything else in WTAW. The mask of light comedy slips: a point is being made. In an interview Sewell said that audiences used to spontaneously applaud and cheer this speech (which pleased him immensely).

Here, it seems to me, is the Brexit mentality precisely: simultaneously reactionary and radical, harking back to a golden age that may or may not have existed and resenting meddling ‘experts’ and the thrust of capitalism’s fingers into every pie. It also throws cold water over the nostalgic aspects of Brexit by discovering this yearning for the golden age within the supposed golden age of the 50’s itself. Perhaps it is the case that however far you go back in time the golden age is always going to be a little further on (apart, maybe, from the golden age directly preceding Brexit).

Delderfield himself apparently started out as a Liberal and ended up as a Conservative – I have no idea where WTAW figures on that trajectory. In any case by the end of the film he seems to have given up on making political statements: the will is discovered in a teapot (after Alfie and Annie make the tea in it) and the farm is Annie’s, and all previous speculation is rendered irrelevant. She wants to give it to Alfie, but he refuses to take it, at the same time making it clear that he is now willing to accept her marriage proposal.

Thus love triumphs over financial concerns, and presumably we are meant to forget that up until this point the entire film, with its heated discussions of mortgages and the price of pigs, has been about money.

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

Playing a young member of a rival farming family in WTAW is a young Edward Woodward. He begins a sort of Romeo And Juliet romance with one of Dandy Nichols’ daughters – the well-spoken one played by Ann Hanslip – and they go off together to fulfil his dream of setting up a riding stables. The romance, which nobody has any real objection to, seems of less importance than the business plan, which is in itself only a minor element in the film. You get a sense of capitalism’s ‘business as usual’ going on in the background regardless of local feuds and government meddling.

In The Wicker Man Woodward returns to the land, in more ways than one. He plays Seargeant Neil Howie, a staunchly Christian policeman sent to the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a schoolgirl who he suspects is being prepared for sacrifice by the pagan populace, as a way of ensuring that the harvest won’t fail like it did the previous year. By the time he understands that he is the intended virgin sacrifice (he has, memorably, proved his virginity by resisting the temptation posed by a naked Britt Ekland, in a community where everybody else is at it like rabbits) it’s far too late.

In an article for Sight and Sound last year, Adam Scovell, writing about this film, made a cheeky little Brexit comparison, cheeky enough to elicit an outraged letter in the subsequent issue accusing Scovell of ‘smug elitism’ and wondering why ‘liberals’ never ‘bother to ask ordinary people what they really think’. (Hmm I don’t know, maybe liberals think they are ordinary people…? )

Anyway, Scovell sees a contemporary resonance in the notion of these islanders clinging to the old traditions and falling for a ‘mass delusion’ (propagated by an aristocrat, Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle), a delusion undercut by Howie’s prophecy, shortly before he is burned to death, that the harvest will fail again and that next time the locals will demand a bigger sacrifice (ie: Lord Summerisle himself).

Scovell does have a point, just as Howie has a point – we see Lord Summerisle registering it, before moving on with the ritual – but we should remember that Howie’s critique of this ‘mass delusion’ does not come from a thoroughgoing rationalist, but from another true believer. Scovell also fails to acknowledge the possibility that the ending of The Wicker Man is a happy one.

I’m not suggesting that we are glad to see Howie sacrificed, uptight as he is (although it isn’t too hard to imagine a cynical viewer thinking, as his fate unfolds: that’s what you get for not sleeping with Britt Ekland.) But so much effort has been expended on getting him to come, willingly, to the place of sacrifice, in the fool’s costume, that it would be somehow unsatisfying if he were to survive, as though the film itself were a kind of ritual that must be completed.

The last time I saw this film, which was at the Curzon Soho (where I also saw God’s Own Country) it seemed to me a fault that Howie’s manipulation by the locals does not seem quite enough to account for his arrival at the right place at the right time in the right clothing. Then it occurred to me that perhaps this only signals an element of divine intervention, entirely appropriate under the circumstances. That only leaves one question: which god? The pagan god, the Christian god or, on a more self-reflexive note, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, the omniscient creator? The answer is surely all three – after all, they all get exactly what they want in the end. The pagan god gets a sacrifice, the Christian god a martyr and Shaffer a decent ending.

The divisiveness of Brexit isn’t really echoed here. The islanders seem entirely at one in their beliefs and even Howie, who is against everything they stand for, discovers that his belief in self-sacrifice interlocks – with almost embarrassing neatness – with their need for a victim.

So this is a story of unity, not division, and it is impossible to believe, as we watch that perfect final shot of the wicker man’s head falling away to reveal the setting sun beyond it, that the harvest will fail next year. And even if it does, there’s always sex tourism.

So maybe The Wicker Man is a red herring, nothing to do with Brexit after all, but it helps to crystallize the conclusion these films have been leading me to – there is no problem that sexualization won’t fix. We just need to sexualize migration, sexualize the economy, sexualize Brexit (whether soft or hard), and everything will be just fine. Although we might have to make a few sacrifices.

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