It seems only fitting that England’s prized louche comic-turned-activist, Russell Brand, should find his latest on screen venture in Michael Winterbottom’s documentary The Emperor’s New Clothes (2015). Brand assumes the lead, taking aim at the bankers and corporations that form the world’s top 1% of the wealth pyramid, looking to expose the problems in their practices and the more severe issues of income inequality that stem from those practices. Brand is able to bring his signature levity to an otherwise grim topic. He shines in his connections to the public, never shying away from the opportunity to charmingly mouth off to passers-by, security guards – anyone really.
The chance to spread the word is always present for Brand and Winterbottom. Appropriately lined up for release amidst the impending elections, this duo have created a sharp portrait of one of the biggest economic issues facing the UK today. Using the crash of 2008 as his narrative launching point, Brand delivers a bit of backstory not only about the events leading up to crisis, but just how craftily big banks have side-stepped making reparations to the public in favour of keeping the loot for themselves. The thesis expounded throughout the film is that these bankers – the mind-bogglingly wealthy, the greedy good-for-nothings who seem more tight-fisted than ever – are set to keep convincing the public that raising taxes on the wealthy is economically ineffective and thus, unnecessary.
Brand counters that their logic is hollow and their actions seek to strangle the populace. “This is the institutionalization of greed,” Brand remarks. He works to highlight the issues with an economic status that the public has come to accept as well as incite change. It mines its material to paint the proper portrait of inequality, even using Brand’s hometown of Grays, Essex as a sort of ‘Exhibit A’, where dereliction and a lack of community viability seems to pervade. Watching can feel overwhelming at times with Brand spitting numbers and facts like an auctioneer. The need for a pen and paper may feel pressing, but it soon dissipates when the action jumps to Brand as a man on the streets. Functioning as Britain’s own Michael Moore, he doles out leaflets to curious folks whilst waxing poetic on criminal banking practices.
He trots into the reception areas of banks and politely asks to speak with the CEOs who operate in greed and selfishness. He’s charming and effective throughout in his rhetoric and delivery; its difficult not to feel endeared when Brand brandishes. The Emperor’s New Clothes is equally effective in its aims. It’s heavy on the pathos but for good reason: given the heady and plentiful political coverage seeping into our newsfeeds of late, this film feels like a proper bit of positive posturing for the everyman. Brand infuses dry wit into every moment. His non sequiturs are never non grata. Cutting together a thorough portrait of all those affected, this is a documentary that is hard to look away from. But perhaps right now that’s exactly what we need: A little truth, a little honesty and a whole lot of Brand.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem