Streaming Spotlight: visions of England

Seven films for St George's Day

by Jennie Kermode

The flag of St George
The flag of St George

For St George’s Day, we’re turning our Spotlight on England and the different ways it has been represented in cinema. There’s a wealth of great material to choose from but we hope that this selection will take you to some interesting places, reminding you of the beauty of the country’s landscapes, the variety and complexity of its communities, and the wealth of things it if offers to the curious explorer beyond the staples of cups of tea, queuing and rain.

Arcadia
Arcadia

Arcadia - Plex, Apple TV

Technically about Britain but focused mostly on England, Paul Wright’s haunting, poetic documentary is an essay in psychogeography that lays the country bare. It’s built entirely out of archive clips and scored by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory; it’s fluid, unexplained, and yet it will strike a deep chord with English viewers. Travelling freely across rolling green hills, along bright waterways and through dark, mysterious forests, it presents a familiar landscape etched with mystery, observing rituals from cricket matches to industrial protests, Morris dances and men chasing a giant wheel of cheese down a hillside. Cathedrals sit side by side with ancient stone circles; gravestones marked with crosses are circled by once-sacred yews. This is a brilliantly constructed piece of filmmaking which casts a spell over viewers, inviting them to lose themselves in its dreaming.

East Is East
East Is East

East Is East - Amazon, Apple TV

From wild and ancient places to crowded tenement houses we go, as Damien O’Donnell’s sharp-witted comedy drama plunges us into the heart of Salford in 1971, where family is everything but the pressure of trying to live up to other people’s expectations threatens to tear it apart. Om Puri was deservedly nominated for a BAFTA for his performance as the Pakistani immigrant father who gradually morphs into a tyrant as his growing children defy him, unable to relate to the values he holds dear. Tensions grow between him and his Lancashire-born wife as the kids engage with all the excitement of contemporary English life, from nightclub outings and forbidden sexual desires to backyard scuffles, fish and chips and parkas. Racism is a constant background presence, and sometimes internalised, but what stands out is the impression of resilience, laughter and thriving community.

The Moo Man
The Moo Man

The Moo Man - Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube

Amber Wilkinson writes: If there is one trade associated with traditional views of England, it is probably farming, and this warm-hearted documentary is a treat for those who like to see things done the old-fashioned way. Shot over three years, Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier follow the work of organic dairy stockman Stephen Hook through the seasons, charting the challenges he comes up against along the way and, in particular, making a success of a small farm in the world of the modern marketplace, where quantity is often king. Hook is a genial subject, who knows all of the "ladies" in his herd by name and the directors take their time to show, not just the financial side of the business, but also the emotional investment Hook has in the farm - the slow birth of a calf a particular highlight. Read our interview with Hook and the directors.

This Is England
This Is England

This Is England - Brit Box, Amazon, Google Play

For many, the St George’s Cross is an uncomfortable symbol, co-opted by the far right. Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical film, since expanded into a TV series, explores issues around this as its young hero (Thomas Turgoose), already struggling to cope with the death of his father and with his mother’s awful taste in trousers, tries to establish his own identity and figure out what it means to be English. Friendship with a group of skinheads helps him cope with bullying and build up his confidence, but the arrival of ex-con Compo (played by Stephen Graham, who told us how the production process turned young Turgoose’s life around) leads him down a much darker path. Comedy and pathos intermingle as Meadows examines deprivation, racism and the impact of the Falklands War, delivering a bittersweet but highly memorable result.

The Big Melt
The Big Melt

The Big Melt - BFI player

Amber Wilkinson writes: At the opposite end of the spectrum to The Moo Man, this documentary, drawn from the BFI archive, and made especially for the 20th anniversary Sheffield's Doc/Fest, thrusts us into the searing spaces of the steel industry. Fascinating not just as a portrait of the industrial process - which employed more than 300,000 up until the Seventies - but as a snapshot of the community life that surrounded it, the film stretches all the way back to 1900. The smelting is, of course, key to the film but there's also a grace as it considers the end product, which includes footage of the construction of the new Tyne Bridge. The score put together by co-director, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker (who made the film with Martin Wallace) mixes sources as diverse as Carl Orff and the Kes soundtrack. The film is a less an all-out celebration of the industry than an acknowledgement of the graft that went into it and a tribute to those who made it their career.

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle
Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle - BBC iPlayer

There are no weak links in Steve McQueen’s anthology of films about the experiences of West Indian communities in Seventies London, but his portrait of the writer Alex Wheatle in his early years captures aspects of English life rarely taken on elsewhere. Drifting from abandonment as a child and brutal experiences in a mostly-white children’s home to prison as an adult, its hero, played by Sheyi Cole, has little concept of his own identity until a cellmate asks him for his story, prompting a process of self-examination that will transform his life. It will also awaken him to the extent of injustice around him in an England characterised by police violence and government neglect. Alienated by the country of his birth, he perceives its alien character, but the film is underscored by the knowledge that he will go on to redefine it through his own storytelling.

Maggie Smith in Gosford Park
Maggie Smith in Gosford Park

Gosford Park - Google Play, YouTube, Amazon

At a glance the tamest if our choices today – England as its tourist board likes to represent it to the world – Gosford Park (a world away from the empty frippery of Downton Abbey which its screenwriter would go on to co-create) actually embodies a withering critique of the country’s class system, even if it expresses it in a terribly genteel way. In the tradition of heritage films like A Room With A View and The Remains Of The Day, it dazzles viewers with pretty period costumes and its stately home setting whilst revealing the damage done by the habitual exploitation of inherited power. Even the aristocrats are not really free, the choices constrained by social expectation and potential financial precarity at every turn. Robert Altman directs with a light touch and the mostly splendid cast improvise brilliantly. The final song sums it up. In films like this, perhaps, we are looking not for reality but for the dream of England, for a lovely land of might-have-been.

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