Skip Kite’s Tony Benn: Will and Testament (2014) is a disappointing piece of Teflon ‘non-cinema’ that may well prove a mystery both to itself and general audiences. Kite claims that cinema is an example of “reverse engineering” and how the “thrill of the ride” is what made him pick film as his art form of choice. With that image reverberating around your mind, it’s difficult to make sense of how he could have made such a pedestrian stroll through the life and times of one the most contentious figures of the late 20th century. Kite’s only previous film, Peter (2010), was a mishmash of the confused and the offensive that attempted to delve into the psyche of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper.
The question that Kite never answers is who is this film for? Anyone familiar with Benn may well feel short-changed, whilst anyone unaware of the man’s importance will learn precious little, so lacking is it contextually. Will and Testament is moving in parts, as Benn talks about his life, family, politics but what the film needed was a trained interviewer come interrogator not the out of his depth director who here stumbles through, constantly not asking the questions that would illuminate both the man and the film. The constant jumps over the important periods of Benn’s career are the equivalent of seeing your favourite bands greatest hits murdered by an out of tune cover band. For example, we hear next to nothing of his fight to become Labour Party leader in 1976 and/or deputy leader in 1981.
Omissions such as these and the complete absence other voices (either from supporter or detractors) makes this slice of nostalgia a celebration without proper explanation. We hop from the Falklands and miners’ strikes to his work for the Stop The War Coalition, but find out nothing about any of them or Benn’s role in them. Numerous bizarre decisions are made, but the biggest has to be the scenes that take place in a purpose-built set that recreates a cosy living room and open fire place where Benn sits and talks like he’s auditioning for an episode of Jackanory, all the time surrounded by swirling front pages. The tone changes in the last 20 minutes of Will and Testament with the introduction of movie clips – Network (1976) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) to name but two – as well as footage of Benn’s political ire at unfairness and inequality. And yet anger is the emotion that’s missing most from Kite’s flawed documentary, replaced by the sentimentalisation of the Left and the glory of political defeat. Bennites would be advised to look elsewhere.
This review was originally published on 27 June as part of our extensive Edinburgh International Film Festival coverage.