Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Russell Brand
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What do you think of Russell Brand? Your answer to that will most likely determine your reaction to his documentary, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The film is a spiked examination of the UK economy and the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis. Those three words have become background noise to our society, accepted by the many to excuse the actions of a few. And, Brand argues, we’re not the ones benefitting. “The rich are getting richer,” he tells us. “Everyone else is struggling.”
It’s not hard to identify with the parade of average Joes and Janes that goes across the screen. Brand turns to his hometown of Grays in Essex to show us hard-working people, who have faced cuts and austerity to fund bailouts for bonus-paying banks. One is a single mum who worries her daughter cannot afford to get a university education. Another is a cleaner, who gets up at 5am to wipe the windows of an Oxford Street department store but doesn’t earn a Living Wage. It would now take 300 years for the average cleaner, cleaning the offices of his senior boss, to earn the same salary taken home by the same boss last year, we are told.
Numbers flash up on the screen every few minutes – along with words such as “bonus” and “equality” – to illustrate his message. It’s not always clear where the statistics come from, which weakens the point, but the overall message is hard to deny. According to Oxfam, the richest 80 people in the world own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion.
“The rich have got richer,” Russell reminds us, a mantra he repeats, alongside carefully echoed shots of people wiping shiny office windows.
Other illustrations are less successful: a trip to a primary school to ask small children to hold up gold bars representing the world’s distribution of wealth (“Is it fair?” “No!”) feels slightly more calculated than cute. But Brand is an effusive, infectious bringer of bad news; we are treated to a string of sequences where he charms the pants off the common public. Even the security guards at HSBC and other big banks, which he visits in what feels like a British remake of Capitalism: A Love Story, can’t help but crack a smile. Then he door-steps the owner of The Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, over his tiny tax bill. He’s like a hairier Michael Moore.
Russell unleashes his relentless tirade – which links the current problems back to Reaganomics and Thatcher – with conviction, not to mention his signature strand of brash, self-deprecating humour (he admits to his own wealth when the subject of tax comes up). Behind the camera, British cinema stalwart Michael Winterbottom assembles the assault of information superbly, ramping up the illustrations of inequality with rage-inducing precision. If by the end of the movie you aren’t angry, you haven’t been paying attention.
That’s the only weakness of the movie: that, because of its presenter, the reaction of many will simply be not to pay attention. (Applause rang out for his preaching at limited cinema screenings, which would have been filled with the converted.) But Russell Brand’s commitment to activism is commendably sincere – we witness his campaigning alongside residents of London’s New Era housing estate last year – and, crucially, is enough to inspire engagement among a young generation who, more often than not, detach from politics. Brand’s conclusion predictably calls for revolution rather than participation in democracy, but the 90 minutes preceding it are a challenging call to action in the run-up to May’s general election. Put aside your gut reaction to Russell: whether you fancy the tight-trousered comedian or wish he’d eff off, this is passionate film-making with a point that feels both urgent and important.
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