Special Feature: The fluidity of identity in British cinema

With an industry so frequently considered as ‘lagging behind’ the successes of the mainstream provided by Hollywood, British Cinema seems somewhat subjugated by its dominant overseas counterpart. Furthermore, the artistic ‘otherness’ of a European cinema arguably fills the void in terms of an alternative to the mainstream blockbusters produced by Hollywood and its associates. The role and identity of a British cinema therefore is unclear in many respects.

To begin, it is important to address the question of what defines a ‘national cinema’, and how such a definition can allow for a critical and analytical understanding of the diversities and similarities between separate ‘national cinemas’. Andrew Higson, author of ‘British Cinema: Past and Present‘, sees a discussion of a definitive ‘national identity’ as highly complicated, as its signifying aspects are both vague and varied: “National identity is by no means a fixed phenomenon, but constantly shifting.  The shared collective identity which is implied always masks a whole range of internal differences and potential and actual antagonisms.” Such a fluidity of culture within this notion of a ‘national identity’ makes it almost impossible to set concrete boundaries that define any form of identity. In an attempt to distinguish the most common divisions for defining a ‘national cinema’ therefore, Higson identifies four aspects, though he suggests that several of these may work alongside each other. Firstly, he believes the idea of a ‘national cinema’ can be “defined in economic terms, with the focus being on the film industry rather than film texts.”

A key component of the British film industry is certainly its actors – they are the faces that we are to identify with as on-screen representatives of our nation. British actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting [1996], The Full Monty [1997]) recently made a plea to cinema chains to support the British film industry by “reserving at least one screen in multiplexes to show UK productions.” Speaking at a BAFTA event in November 2009, Carlyle stated: “I look at all these multiplex cinemas, 15 and 20 screens. They are basically wall-to-wall American products. You will be lucky if you find any British subject in there at all. I don’t see anything wrong in giving our industry a lift up, and reserving just one of these screens for a British product. We make stuff and we bury it. You don’t get to see it and what’s the point in that?”

If the idea of identity is to maintain a “national labour-force” as Higson so values, then what Carlyle hints at is the death of a national cinema, and of the identity of British cinema as a whole. Carlyle highlighted this further when he explained that he was unlikely to continue shooting films in Britain in the near future, due to problems with the inaccessibility of production and distribution: “The major problem for me is it’s getting harder and harder to make [British] films, and [increasingly] difficult to get the finance.”

Claire Binns, the programming director of art-house cinema chain City Screen Picturehouses, believes there is “certainly commitment out there for people to release [British] films, but [in terms of them being] huge successes, I think it’s a struggle.” She sees the predominant reason for the absence of British films in cinemas as being directly connected to audience demand and therefore, when programming decisions are made, “it’s about who takes most money.” Binns’ regretful resignation suggests the lack of demand for British films means that most of the productions that actually manage to get the initial funding ultimately struggle to achieve exhibition upon their completion. She explains: “You have to make decisions every week, and it’s got to be about people choosing to spend their money to go and see [certain films]. We could fill our cinemas with all the films we like, but then we wouldn’t have the cinemas to put them in.”

Stuart Boreman, film-buying director of Vue cinemas explains that his outlook on the matter is much more openly profit-orientated: “It’s about meeting audience requirements…[selling] as many tickets as possible in any given week…and [therefore] screening the right film on the right screen at the right time…I don’t see myself as having a responsibility to uphold the quality of films in UK cinemas…[such] decisions are purely fiancial.” It is perhaps this attitude that has caused the British film industry to be ‘killed off’ from the inside, for it contests the understanding of the true role of a ‘British national identity’ within film culture.

Higson sees the potential effects of ‘Americanisation’ on a British cultural industry and its audience as most perturbing. In recent years however, it has been suggested that British film is in the midst of a revival. Writing for The Guardian in 2009, Andrew Pulver suggested that we are revisiting a trend of British cinema more aligned to ‘art cinema’, something that has not been prominent since the 1980s: “In the last 12 months we have seen the release of such unabashedly visionary films such as Sleep Furiously, Hunger, Unrelated, Better Things, Soi Cowboy, and Of Time and the City. Soon we will be getting Fish Tank and Berlin Film Festival discovery, Katalin Varga.”

The fact that a British production, Katalin Varga (2009), is even dubbed as a “Berlin Film Festival discovery” says something further of the way in which the British film industry operates, in terms of how its own nation’s films are often only revered and promoted (both in their own country and worldwide) once discovered through foreign film festivals. Vanessa Thorpe of The Observer explains that “almost one-sixth of all films shown [worldwide] were British, [with] more than 164 million visits to the cinema [in Britain], twenty-two million more than in the year 2000.” Indeed, right up until the fatal news of its demise, the UK Film Council reported that in 2009, “box-office takings in this country [stood] at a record £850 million.”

British screenwriter Jonathan Gems is one of many who is frustrated by the state of the British film industry and strongly believes Hollywood to be the dominant force: “Of course at the moment Hollywood has the best overall product, but we invented cinema in many respects and yet we don’t have our own cinema.” Gems also blames the lack of functioning British studios as a reason for a loss of control over the protection of ‘homegrown talent’.

As Britain is much smaller in geographical terms than say, America, its creative industries are much more difficult to define as a whole, and therefore when questioning the role of British cinema it becomes very difficult to provide a singular answer. Perhaps the most effective way of understanding the role of British cinema comes in the form of Higson’s fourth interpretation of a cinema’s ‘national identity’ – representation: “This time, the concern is with what the films are about. Do they share a common style of worldview? Do they share common themes, motifs, or preoccupations? How do they project the national character? How do they dramatise the fantasies of national identity? Are they concerned with questions of nationhood? What role do they play in constructing the sense of the image of a nation?”

Most crucially, it would seem that the idea of a ‘British national identity’ within cinema is a construct that constantly moves between successful recognition and misconstrued failure. Certainly much of the defining aspects of the identity of British cinema have become dependent on their associations with society. Higson makes a further distinction between the elements that construct a national cinema: “An alternative view is that ‘national identity’ is constructed in and through representation: a nation does not express itself through its culture: it is culture that produces the nation.” This suggestion implies that the true, pressing role of British cinema is to act as an outlet of expression for its nation, but also as a means of exploring the social content and issues of ‘national identity’ that the subsequent films of Britain attempt to represent, define and redefine.

Therefore, if the conventional American productions of Hollywood are to be considered as representative of the escapist fantasy desires of a mainstream cinemagoing audience, and the ‘art-based’ productions of a European cinema characterise the physicality of emotions through often heavily-stylised cinematography and mise-en-scene, then British cinema’s stereotype functions to positively represent strength in its recognition of its own ‘national identity’. Lovell states that: 

“Arguments can be made that comparable cinemas like the French or Italian have, over their whole history been superior to the British cinema, but the differences are only relative ones. British cinema isn’t a special case. There isn’t some fundamental British cinematic deficiency which needs to be accounted for.”
The main purpose of a ‘national identity’ thus becomes to serve as a point of identification not for its own nation, but for anyone outside of that culture who chooses to observe it or enter in. Indeed, Britain itself is arguably considered one of the most multi-cultural nations in the world, and therefore certainly its cinema should reflect that. Perhaps then, the most positive quality of British culture and its creative cinematic output has become its ability to involve several ‘versions’ of the ideas of society, culture and the multiple definitions of a ‘national identity’. 

Laura J. Smith