Social realism is a hugely interesting topic, especially when it comes to its depiction in British cinema. Here’s my thoughts, and an overview of the sub-genre over the decades. What does the future hold for the Brit grit movie?
Social realism, or the ‘Brit grit’ film, has been a popular sub-genre across the decades. The characteristics of the Brit grit movie are ever changing, that’s the nature of it. If you look at some more dominant genres like horror, action, western, they must possess a certain number of distinguishing aesthetic properties to qualify as that genre and secondly, they can be identified through the emotions they invoke. Although, an argument can be brought to the table in any case of defining strict attributes of a genre, or suggesting that every film under a particular genre follows that pattern. But conventionally, the horror genre uses suspenseful music, dark and shadowy misc-en-scene, some kind of sinister force and Christopher Lee. The action film is often fast paced, and features explosions whilst a protagonist fights a seemingly never ending succession of obstacles. The western would usually involve breathtaking and often desolate landscape views, and is traditionally set in the American colonial times, with striking scores. So what’s the conventions of the Brit grit movie? And how do you define ‘social realism’?
In terms of aesthetics, the Brit grit can be hard to pin down. But there can be trends noted in the emotions they invoke, and they methods used to do that. The academic Raymond Williams has previously provided a set of characteristics that can be found in social realist works. These characteristics include secularity (you won’t find any supernatural, superstitious, mythical or religious entities existing in the real world in realist texts), contemporary settings (dealing with the socio political issues of the modern day), social extension (marginalised groups or lesser represented groups are key characters or protagonists), and the intent of the artist (the realist text may represent or focus on the political views of the creator). Generally, that’s the case with movies we would categorise as ‘Brit grit’ or social realist. But there can be some exceptions. Shane Meadows’ This Is England for example … the journey and the setting is purely secular. Our skinhead gang can be classed as an example of social extension, and the intent of the artist features quite prominently with strong political themes of nationalism, race, class and the economy. It’s not contemporary times as the story takes place in the ’80s – but it’s evidently a period of significance for Meadows and the message he wants to get across.
This Is England can be considered of the most popular Brit grit movies of recent times. But how does it differ, if at all, from predecessors of the sub-genre? Is the political message the only differing element in the social realist films of Britain? How about the aesthetics? It’s definitely interesting to have a look back on how the this type of movie has evolved over the years.
You could say that the birth of the British social realist film was the early documentaries of the 1930s. This was a time when real political issues, real social issues and real people were exposed through the medium of film, and this was a new thing. The exposure of the working class people of Britain, misunderstood communities, was something the British documentary filmmakers focussed on. Rather than being viewed as huge commercial, profitable forms of entertainment, the early social realist films were more about the class divisions and the voice of the ‘angry young man’. As social realism developed into the British New Wave of cinema and the ‘kitchen sink realism’, the aesthetics became more defined in notable features like The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, Look Back In Anger and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning; young working-class men in a time of social upheaval, industrial, sooty post-war towns, wide shots of bleak landscapes, poetic sequences. They also coined the term ‘social problem films’ because of the issues and the human truths they dealt with – sexuality, race, religion and social inequalities. A Taste Of Honey, a favourite of mine, is set in Northern England, and is about a 17 year old girl who has a secretive love affair with a black sailor. She becomes pregnant, and seeks comfort in a close friendship with a homosexual man.This kind of social extension carried on through the ’80s, and is notable in movies like Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) – a Southern England narrative focussing on a romance between two young men compromised by clashing social and racial differences.
There’s an ongoing theme with the British social realist films spanning across that half century from the ’30s through the ’80s, that is the centralisation of an individual, previously unrepresented character who belongs to a marginalised group. Naturally, some of the aesthetics evolved as the medium did, but the poeticism of beauty in difficulty, pure humanity in a struggling time remained. In the later ’80s and earlier ’90s, a sort of shift happened – independent British films would begin to focus more on situations and narratives unfolding in the confines of domestic settings. Mike Leigh’s films would focus on the dynamics of family life instead of struggling individuals, with movies like Life Is Sweet, Grown-Ups (not the Adam Sandler version), and Abigail’s Party.
The post-Thatcher era saw movies like Brassed Off, Full Monty and Billy Elliot dealing with a different kind of problem within the parameters of British social realism. There was a strong sense of emasculation after the industrial North was undermined during the Tory rule, so a commonly occurring theme would be the survival of the protagonist male in this time. Brassed Off is about the struggles and faltering morale of a brass band following the closure of their local coal pit, whilst The Full Monty sees a group of unemployed men taking an alternative route to earning some cash, and Billy Elliot is the story of a young boy finding a glimmer of hope through ballet, in a time of real economic strain in Northern England. The years between then (the 90s) and the later 2000s was a time when British social realism took a more commercial approach than the bleak, black and white depictions of the documentary movement and the New Wave. The films of the later ‘90s and early 2000s adopt a more hopeful and humourous side – the idea that things will be better, and lightness can always be found in dark situations, whilst still focussing strictly on human truths and real, current social and political struggles.
In the last decade (give or take a few years) there has been a dwindling number of British social realist films, but there’s certainly been some gems in there; This Is England, Cemetery Junction, My Summer of Love. Most notably, the English filmmaker Andrea Arnold has provided us with a select few seriously good Brit grit films feature length and short, those being Fish Tank, Red Road and Wasp.
But what’s in store for British social realist cinema? The lines seem to have become more blurred and blend from naturalist portrayals to commercial money makers. Can a social realist movie be both of those things? One thing is for sure, over the years the aesthetics and the nature of the Brit grit has evolved, but that one fact remains: the sub genre is one that portrays a view of ‘life as it really is’, free from Hollywoodization, free from the glossy coating we’re so used to seeing in movies and exclaiming “that would never happen!” with a huff. Of course there’s still escapism in Brit grit movies, but that’s when the normal characters are seeking to excel in their life, or make good out of a bad situation.
I think Andrea Arnold is a director who could be one to keep the sub-genre alive. Like in the old days of British social realism, she uses unknown actresses as leads who are native to the area, either debuting in her works or been seen in very little films/TV previously (Kate Dickie in Red Road, Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank).
Most recently, the fresh-on-the-scene actress Sasha Lane will feature as the lead female in Arnold’s American Honey later this year. American Honey is set in America (…obviously), a far cry from the tower blocks of gritty England. But instead of looking like a big hit with a stock narrative, Arnold’s latest work looks much inspired by the aesthetics and ingredients of the early British social realism and her earlier films. Now that’s an interesting premise – the social-realist-kitchen-sink-esque film in an American setting. Maybe that’s where the sub-genre is headed.
The Brit grit movie requires a time of substantial economic and political strain, because that’s the nature of it. As things arguably got easier through the millennium, the key ingredient wavered – that is the harshness of the Brit grit. With more comedic and light hearted narratives, the Brit grit appears to have largely disconnected from its roots. But here’s a thought… with Britain going through its current affairs, what if another New Wave of the nation’s social realist cinema is on the horizon? … Every cloud.
What are your thoughts on the future of British social realism? What’s your favourite Brit grit movie?