Every journey must end some day and after fifty eight history films, several bonus pieces and countless hours we’ve finally reached the end of the road, the final chapter of the British History Challenge. Here is it where it must end…
#59: Billy Elliot
General Opinion: What’s not to like?
Review: You don’t really think of this as a history film… But then again it’s set in 1984 and was made in 2000 so there’s a good sixteen years there. Sid and Nancy was made in less time after the fact so… If you don’t know the story, it’s about this kid (I can’t remember his name… Errr… It could be Billy Elliot but don’t count me on that one.) It’s about this kid who lives with father and brother, who are both tough miners who’ve gone out on strike, and his elderly grandma (who’s a bit gaga) somewhere in Tyneside… His mum died a few years before the film began. Against the wishes of his father, Billy takes up ballet dancing with Julie Walters (a woman whose life is unfulfilled and whose husband pisses himself, apparently) and soon becomes good enough to audition for the Royal Ballet School… Oh and there is also Billy’s best friend who gradually comes out of the closet during the film, simple enough
On paper it all sounds absolutely crap and ‘all been done before’ kind of thing- The kid reaching for his dreams against the wishes of his family, blah blah… But, actually, this has been one of the highlights of the challenge. Its zips along at a toe tapping pace with sadness, humour and a fantastic script that just oozes with wonderful, gruff Tyneside dialect (Don’t loose you’re blob, for instance… As well as gratuitous use of almost every swear word known to man!) It just sounds all so natural that its hard to think it was actually written at all. And the acting is top of the league, even though they aren’t exactly A listers… You have a very young Jamie Bell, Julie Walters and a few others who aren’t exactly world famous… Look carefully and Stephen Mangan pops up for about five seconds in the scenes at the Royal Ballet. And they all give their best performances. Bell is intrinsically convincing as Billy, dancing his way from scene to scene and up and down the terraces of Tyneside, the kid dances good.
And as for the soundtrack… Ohhhh…. What’s not to like? An excessive amount of T.Rex (Never a bad thing) mixed in with The Jam, The Clash and Swan Lake… It’s all put together in this wonderful, poetic manner to create something that is likeable and entertaining. Even if you aren’t a fan of the music there’s plenty to keep you occupied. The film is less than two hours long buts it crammed full of almost everything that for some reason some longer films fail to achieve- Humour, suspense, entertainment, and most of all watchability. If a film isn’t watchable then its nothing.
But what about the history? Well that is a very difficult one. It wasn’t really made as a history film. The film is more about a boy’s passion to be a dancer than the actual history, and I think that’s a good thing. However, what history there is can be said to be wonderfully acute and accurate. It’s not about the miners and their strike but it does manage to convey the struggle and the hardship they went through (curiously without taking sides, that I noticed.) There’s a lot of realism in those scenes- The hounding of so called ‘scabs’ (people who crossed the picket line,) harassment by the police… There’s even a couple of scenes that appear to be based on photographs from the time. It’s very well orchestrated even though the strike only plays a minor part in the film.
#60: The Queen
General Opinion: Good, if a little bit creepy.
Review: Does something count as history if you can remember it happening? Probably… Here we reach what I would define the outer limits of British History. From here on in there’s nothing but modernity. This film is so close to the present that it feels like it could have happened yesterday. The Queen even has a mobile phone. Ok, it looks more like a walkie-talkie but it’s still a recognisable mobile phone. The fashions are very similar to what you see people wearing today and it’s so close to the present you can almost reach out and touch it…
Almost, but not quite. In the film theres a clip of Bill Clinton giving a tribute to Diana… Bill Clinton as President of the United States. We’ve had Bush and Obamma since then. And Tony Blair at the start of his premiership (played with eerily convincing slime by Michael Sheen) and Blair is freaking popular. There’s a woman in there praising Blair as the saviour of Britain, for instance. I don’t even remember him ever being popular. It’s a whole world away from today yet its only been fifteen years. It goes to show how fast things can change. Back then there was no such thing as iTunes or YouTube. Heck, even the internet was in its infancy.
This is a good film. Theres no denying it. It’s a moving portrait of the royal family as they tried to cope with the impact of Princess Diana’s death and the public pressure that was thrust upon them as a result. Helen Mirren does a good job at playing a Queen who is torn between looking after her family and doing her duty to the nation. And Michael Sheen, as I have mentioned, is also eerily convincing. And I think that’s where the problem lies. The performances are too good. At times it feels like watching people impersonating the real thing, and its creepy. There’s a bit near the beginning where Mirren turns to the camera with a forceful look… I was almost convinced she was going to give a cheeky wink at that point. Thankfully she didn’t. And Sheen? Somehow its almost like he’s been possessed by Blair’s soul. He becomes the greasey car salesman with ease and it just makes me uneasy. Everybody else also seems to fall into impersonation mode. The Queen Mother is frequently seen sipping gin (and she still doesn’t sound like Beryl Reid for God’s sake… Will they ever get that right?) and if you imagine any other member of the royal family you can guarantee that’s what they’re performed like. Even the back of Prince William’s head looks like the back of Prince William’s head. Although conspicuous by their absence in this film are Princess Anne, Prince Edward and Prince Andrew. Any mention of them? Not a bit. Princess Margaret gets a mention but isn’t shown.
And then there’s the integration of actual news footage. It’s done well and to a high standard, but it just adds to the creepiness, especially when the likes of Trevor McDonald, Elton John and Tom Cruise appear. And then there are clips of the real Diana interspersed, usually along with the news footage. It’s like she’s some sort of ghost in the room and its made all the worse with the montage at the end which culminates in a freeze frame of Diana turning towards the camera before fading to black. Say what you like but I would call that sinister.
But worse is the subplot involving a supposedly beautiful stag who is hunted by the royals throughout the film only to end up being shot ‘on a neighbouring estate.’ Why do I get the feeling they put this in as some sort of allegory for Diana’s life? Either way it just adds to the sinister, creepy vibe this film presents.
Well… This is where we were originally going to end… 1997 and the dawn of a new millennium. But why end on such a dour and creepy film? Let’s carry on into the 21st century… Let’s go through 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan… Let’s go through the internet and iPod and DVDs and Blair, Brown, Cameron… And we’ve reached the end… Our destination… Modernity. From here on in its only the future… But thankfully there is one more film left to see. So what do you say? Once more unto the breech?
#61: The Inbetweeners
General Opinion: A satisfying end.
Review: Ok… So it’s not a history film. But this close to the end of the challenge? Who cares. This is a good film. A worthy way to end the challenge. And that’s all I will say on the matter. And one more thing… Burnley can fuck off.
Wow… We did it. We actually did it. Two Thousand years of history… From the Romans right through to the present day. In only sixty one films we’ve seen an awful lot of things happen, some good, some bad. From the fall of one empire to beyond the sunset of another… All those people who did amazing things… People who reached high and grabbed what they could… Who fought on the battlefields, who sailed the oceans and those who stood up for what they believed in… And the ones who weren’t so lucky. Be proud Britain… For these are your ancestors, the men and women who forged a nation and changed the world… The best we can do is remember… Remember what they did… Remember who they are… And we should try to make the best out of our own lives as we possibly can, for one day we shall all pass into history ourselves and someone else will take centre stage. The circle of life will go on… and on… and on… and on…