British cinema is the cinema of realism, and the social realist drama catapulted Britain onto the world stage, making its cinema a credible source of artistic interpretation.
The social realist film debuted in Britain in the 1960s with a series of popular films created by Woodfall Films Productions: Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson 1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz 1960), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson 1962) are some of the films that brought to the screen Northern accents, working-class issues and industrial towns. Dubbed as “social realist” because they dealt with the “real person’s” problems, these films contrasted Britain’s tradition of only telling wealthy elitists stories and, instead, showed the plight of the average man, allowing the audience to relate and identify with what they saw on screen.
Tony Richardson and Woodfall Films are responsible for putting British cinema on the same playing field as the French, Italian and other national cinemas by gaining artistic acclaim with innovative styling and pushing the art form to new levels. And their legacy continues, most notably in the work of Ken Loach, who’s political dramas comment on social issues prevalent in modern-day Britain. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in the genre. No longer are filmmakers looking to working-class people for the inspiration of their realist films, but are now looking at their own middle and upper-class backgrounds.
Social realist films can be criticised for their hero-complex: many of the directors of these films, like most people in the film and art industries, are from middle to upper-class backgrounds. This becomes problematic when these filmmakers claim to be showing the “real life” of working-class people, despite never having lived nor known that life at all. This leads to stereotyped ideas of what working-class life is: council estates, abuse, addiction, poverty, lack of education and opportunities. Of course, some of these things are true: the class system does disadvantage lower-income people, many of whom are from minority communities. But not every working-class person is uneducated, poor and struggling.
The social realist film has created a false narrative about the reality of British life and this could be attributed to the fact that the people making these films have never actually experienced this reality. Filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, who comes from a working-class background, uses her life experience to create films like Fish Tank (2009) and Red Road (2006). But how does Ken Loach, who had a privileged upbringing and went to Oxford, know the reality of growing up and living in working-class Britain?
So the question becomes: how do these middle-class filmmakers make social realist films related to their reality?
In recent years, there’s been an increase in social realist films made by middle-class filmmakers about middle-class Britain. These genre-defying films reimagine what upper-class life in Britain is, challenging the stereotypical representations seen in other genres (like the costume drama, which tends to glamourise and romanticise upper-class life). What makes these films more relevant to the genre than the working-class film is that these directors come from these backgrounds, using their own lived experiences to create a realistic depiction.
Joanna Hogg is an example of one of these British filmmakers that pays homage to her nation’s cinema, yet doesn’t hide her more privileged upbringing. All of Hogg’s films focus on middle to upper-class women and the challenges they face. Her characters are clearly privileged, but that doesn’t mean they live opulent and perfect lives. In fact, her films are self-aware, commenting on issues of misogyny and substance abuse, toxic relationships and the downfall of an inflated ego. Her films discuss real issues regarding real people – it just so happens that most of them are in the one percent.
In Hogg’s first feature film, Unrelated (2007), she depicts a group of old school friends on a lush holiday in Tuscany. The stylisation of the film is similar to the glamorous and care-free Italian dramas of Luca Guadagnino but mixed with stark British realism. Unlike Guadagnino, who romanticizes the wealth and privilege of his characters, Hogg makes her characters unbearable. You can relate to and understand Anna’s (Kathryn Worth) isolation and the pressure she feels to fit in, but you don’t like her. And you don’t feel bad for her when things don’t go her way.
The themes of Unrelated are universal: the female fear of ageing and not being able to give birth, the temptation of young love mixed with the thrill rebellion; any of these things could happen in your life. This is unlike Guadagnino films, which employs spectacle and fantasy ( it’s not likely you’re going to go on an Italian holiday and your creepy ex-boyfriend will be found drowned in a pool by your new boyfriend… Or that you’re Tilda Swinton). In Hogg’s film, we are very much set in reality – no fanfare, no glamour, no exceptional pleasure. Just normal people living their lives.
Similarly, Hogg’s latest film brings together, even more so than Unrelated, wealth and realism. In The Souvenir (2019), Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) forms a relationship with the mysterious and toxic Anthony (Tom Burke), an aristocrat who works for the Home Office during the day and binges on cocaine and heroin at night. The Souvenir takes classic upper-class imagery (expensive restaurants, opulent estate homes, grand dresses worn to the opera) and subverts it to resemble a social realist drama. Here, Hogg is playing off the stereotypes present in costume dramas, while presenting her characters in stark and raw reality. It’s not often we see the aristocratic characters as flawed, and definitely not as penniless drug addicts. Hogg challenges our expectations of how these characters should act, depicting them with more truth and authenticity than we are accustomed to.
Of course, this type of storytelling isn’t without criticism; it’s the epitome of first-world problems. The majority of the issues faced by these characters are superficial: Anna’s holiday in Tuscany is ruined because a younger man leads her on and Julie complains she’s too nice to be a proper landlord to her working-class lodger. Why is this storytelling on the same playing field as Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016), which deals with the very real and very important issue of inequality in the British social welfare system?
Well, it’s not. At the end of the day, these realist films can just be seen as sob stories for rich people. But they do serve a purpose.
By positioning upper-class people as flawed and problematic, these films are challenging the cultural idea that being a part of a higher class isn’t what you should aim to achieve. Films have a tendency to depict upper-class life as ideal: costume dramas show that marrying rich is the best way to live a happy life; romances take place in wealthy neighbourhoods, unattainable to anyone that doesn’t have a trust fund; even science fiction films depict the posh person as the hero (or the villain, but they’re always sexy and likeable). By subverting the social realist drama, these filmmakers are showing the unsavoury side of the upper-class – the real side.
These films depict the upper-class as messy and toxic, uncouth and destructive. Yes, Hogg’s characters live in grand homes and have the money to afford the finer things in life, but they are also unlikable. You don’t want to live their lives. You see them as real people – not as the untouchable divine. Hogg’s films don’t make you aspire to be part of the upper-class; they actually make you want to avoid it. So, like how working-class social realist films display for us the inequality and injustices of the British class system, upper-class social realist films demystify the wealthy up on their thrones. And, perhaps, that’s the realist form of storytelling.