In the last fortnight I have seen two newly released British-made feature films, Their finest, starring Gemma Arterton, and Mindhorn, with Julian Barratt. Both struck me with features and themes that seemed typically British (or perhaps even English- except Mindhorn was set mainly on the isle of Man).
One key feature of both screenplays was a kind of amateurish battling through. In Their finest this was evoked through Britain standing alone against Nazi Germany, making do and mending, coping with bombing and meagre resources, keeping a stiff upper lip and bearing up in defiance of Mr Hitler. Battle scenes were recreated with model planes, painted backdrops and a swimming pool. In Mindhorn, a has-been TV detective is given a chance to redeem his failed career- something he achieves by accident and in spite of his incompetence, arrogance and self-obsession. It all comes right in the end, against the odds and against all expectations.
Secondly, both films displayed a powerful nostalgia. The drab austerity of the Second World War still had a homely attractiveness about it- warm beer and songs in the pub, fish and chips by the harbour and smoky rooms filled with the clatter of typewriters. In Mindhorn, the tatty glamour of the 1980s, the on-the-cheap TV series and tacky merchandising were all lovingly evoked and tacitly preferred over contemporary success and prosperity.
In both cases, this nostalgic approach tended to blend into the third typical national trait- self deprecation or mockery. This was most evident in Mindhorn: in one respect the film was a 90 minute tourist ad for the Isle of Man, but at the same time the island of 2016 was presented as run-down and stuck in the 1970s with unrefurbished hotels and police stations and with a half-hearted celebration of ‘Manx Day’ that was inferior to most village fetes. In Their finest a government minister recites Shakespeare and everyone is embarrassed by the national bard; the perky Cockneys in the Blitz are recalled with fondness and with a gentle humour.
Both films are worth seeing. Their finest plays on your emotions shamelessly, but is a well told tale. Gemma Arterton is very good (as ever) but Bill Nighy steals the show. There were only two of us seeing Mindhorn in my local cinema on a Thursday night- it’s a laugh from start to finish and deserves better than that!