Capital In The Twenty-First Century


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Capital In The Twenty-First Century
"It's the people least likely to go and see this who stand to get the most out of it."

How confident do you feel on the subject of economics? Whilst the average person can generally repeat what they've heard on the news, go much beyond that and you're like to be met not with an inability to understand the concepts but something more like a learned unwillingness to do so. Money is a depressing subject for many people, something they struggle to manage day to day, and that's the only context in which they perceive economics to exist. Explain that it's really about power, however, and it's easier to get past that. Most of us understand power, at least when it's wielded against us - and we understand how contingent upon it is that other crucial thing, freedom.

Justin Pemberton's cinematic take on Capital In The Twenty-First Century has none of the depth or rigour of the Thomas Piketty book from which it is adapted, but it doesn't really need it - you can go and read the book if you want to see the arguments it makes substantiated. Instead, it is focused on accessibility, on bringing these concepts to a wide audience. Given this, one does wonder if the title was a good idea, but Piketty's work was a best seller so one imagines that it's hoping to cash in on that. The man himself appears, personable and highly engaged, to present his theories, and he's accompanied by a selection of notable academic experts, journalists and corporate economists who elaborate on key ideas.

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We begin in pre-industrial times, swiftly doing away with the fantasies that most people acquire from films and literature, with Piketty noting that aside from the tiny percentage of the population which owned land, pretty much everybody lived hand to mouth in appalling conditions. Our historical journey then progresses through industrialisation and the rise of the middle classes and on to the 20th Century with its stagflation, Great Depression, Reaganism and Thatcherism and laissez-faire economics, until we reach the point there, as illustrated in the book (though less clearly here) the bulk of the middle classes began to slide back towards poverty and the gap between the poor and the super-rich elite began to rival that of Medieval times.

Taking his cue from the likes of The Big Short, Pemberton balances the theory with pop culture photo montages exploring influencer culture, a highly visual discourse on fashion as a means of economic control and clips from films like Elysium, used as an illustration of the kind of future we could get if these trends continue. Piketty drops in a warning about revolution, again tracing patterns in history, though with an acknowledgement that it's much harder to attack the nebulous concept of capital than to storm a chateau. There is little militant spirit here, however. He sees the problem as inherently political in nature, and regrets the poorly planned, poorly (ahem) executed nature of the revolutions of one and two centuries ago. What is needed is a new, less corruptible set of institutions. Change must begin with imagination.

If you were hoping for in-depth academic analysis or a bold new economic manifesto, you're likely to come away from this film disappointed. Ironically, it's the people least likely to go and see this who stand to get the most out of it, and to experience relief at the abandonment of exclusionary language, at being spoken to in a straightforward way about the things that matter. It is, in essence, a beautifully packaged introduction to the topic, but not much more. Still, one of the great tragedies of the progressive left has always been its inability to market itself. Pemberton does that well. If you'd like to feel more confident about economics and you don't know where to start, this film will give you lots to get you thinking.

Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2020
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Capital In The Twenty-First Century packshot
Adaptation of the book concerning modern wealth and power.

Director: Justin Pemberton

Writer: Thomas Piketty, Matthew Metcalfe, Justin Pemberton, Thomas Piketty

Year: 2019

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: France, New Zealand


DOC NYC 2019
EIFF 2020

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