Friday, 12 April 2013

Five movies about Thatcher's Britain

Much of this week's UK news has been dominated by the news of Margaret Thatcher passing away. As a Brit, and a child of Maggie's Britain, no less, I have been asked by Americans several times this week why she was such a divisive figure for the UK.

I'm not going to talk about that here, at least not directly. Instead, I'm going to celebrate what I think is one of her greatest legacies: Her (perhaps unwitting) contribution to the arts.

Because she was such a divisive figure, and also because she was not popular amongst artists, this led to a vibrant and highly politicized arts and cultural legacy. If when you think of 'British Cinema' you think of Harry Potter, Love Actually, Monty Python, or even the Carry On movies, then I'm about to change that for you.

Here are five brilliant movies about Thatcher's Britain, listed in order of release.
Links are mostly to UK trailers, so please assume they are all NSFW!

1. Educating Rita (1983) Set in Liverpool

Working class girl does good: A scouse hairdresser decides to better herself by enrolling into the Open University. The OU is a respected UK distance-learning institution which was established in the 1970s and was very innovative for its time. The story revolves around her eagerness to move in new social and economic circles. It was a breakout movie for newcomer Julie Walters, aka Molly Weasley from Harry Potter.

2. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) Set in London

On the surface, the lead characters in this movie also live according to the entrepreneurial values of the deregulated Thatcher era, by running a successful business. The irony is that they are mixed-race, gay, and loosely involved in trafficking drugs. Huge social commentary on politics, race, and relationships. It was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Woody Allen.

3. Letter to Brezhnev (1985) Set in Liverpool

Two girls, one unemployed and the other working in a chicken factory, meet two Soviet Russian sailors. The unemployed girl decides that life in Soviet Russia would be better than life in 1980s Liverpool. She writes to the communist leader Brezhnev, asking him if she can move to Russia. There's an ironic message here about a poor girl hoping to 'live the dream' in the USSR, but there's also a frightening close up of a girl's hairy armpit, so be warned.

4. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover (1989)

Michael Gambon, aka Dumbledore, plays the Thief in this lavish movie by Peter Greenaway. He represents the 'nouveau riche' of the 1980s: He's wealthy and provides for his wife (Helen Mirren), who wears Jean Paul Gaultier, eats expensive food… and is having an affair with a lowly academic. Very aesthetic, hugely symbolic, and definitely not for the faint-hearted (trust me, it's more disturbing than the hairy armpit).

5. Billy Elliot (2000) Set in Northumberland circa 1984-5

Part of this movie is a sweet tale about a young boy pursuing a dream, but it's set against the backdrop of the 1980s Miners' Strike. Also starring Julie Walters/Molly Weasley. 

I lived in North East England during the 1980s and there is a part of my family that hails from Northumberland: They were a mining family. Seeing a former miner choke up at this movie's depiction of the political/economic unrest brings a gritty strength to Billy Elliot. 

Also see Brassed Off (1996) and the Full Monty (1997) which star Ewen McGregor and Robert Carlyle respectively. Although these two movies are set during the post-Thatcher 1990s, they capture similar themes to Billy Elliot.

Their US trailers are really funny, because they make these movies seem a lot more corny than they really are. They also have the same typically deep blockbuster voice. The US trailer for Brassed Off even describes it as a 'sexy comedy' as if it's Four Weddings and a Funeral. Warning: It's really not. Check them out: Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, Full Monty.

All of these inspired this Mitchell and Webb British underdog movie sketch. If you love British movies and don't understand the rules of cricket, you'll find this hysterical.

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