film 4 of 8

A Sense of History

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2015

Mike Leigh is the big director on this project, but his contributions to it are actually quite modest. Technical credits are patently plain, getting out of the way of text and performance, while at the same time quietly and wittily lampooning the way that these kinds of Heritage programs get made. Quiet lampooning is eclipsed, however, by that positively electrifying text and performance. Mr. Jim Broadbent is responsible for both, and you wonder if he’s been holding out on us, or maybe missed his calling. He’s a revelation, not only as a comic actor—we already knew that—but as a conceptualist and an ideologist as well. And A Sense of History isn’t just about Heritage programs, is it? Making fun can, indeed, be fun, but it turns out that this little concoction has got bigger fish to fry.

At first Broadbent’s lumbering, gauche aristocrat—costume! make-up!—buffoons about in a pleasing, familiar fashion, offering the civilized, liberal viewer all sorts of easy targets, reinforcing his easy prejudices. These Tories, he thinks. The 23rd Earl of Leete, indeed. But then there’s a deft escalation. Broadbent and his creature move from mere Wodehouse/Wooster chinlessness (through a very interesting, nearly straight disquisition on estate management and estate expansion), to a casual description of the murders he’s committed to maintain his place and position. In this unexpected turn easy parody spreads and deepens, then finally sharpens into actual savagery. Sometimes people cite Jonathan Swift, and usually in a pretty loose and sloppy manner. Occasionally something comes along that conjures Swift’s angry, agonized spirit. This film is the real McCoy.

A Sense of History is Swiftian in both matter and the manner. As with its predecessor’s fanciful, furious creations, Broadbent’s character may not simply or even represent himself, but rather the powers and principalities of which he is an emblem  If that character’s statements or actions are preposterous, then it is only to more effectively lead us to the even more presposterous actualities that are taking place in the real world …

(“A Modest Proposal” (1729) is Swift’s most pointed, notorious provocation, and this production is very much in its spirit:  [].)

… In A Sense of History the target would seem to be Thatcherite Conservatism—and let’s by all means add Mr. Reagan here, and maybe Mr. Kohl, and even Mr. Mulroney. After all, these ideas and policies were not exclusive to the United Kingdom during this period. But is that too easy? Further reflection makes me wonder if this little film is really only about the impulse to privatize, to trade (way) more freely, to dismantle the welfare state and the basic tenets of social democracy. I don’t like it, but you do, and I can at least see your point. But Broadbent and Leigh make me wonder if there’s not some kind of a Balrog back there, a greater, older, more malevolent force.

’80s free marketeers are only the tip of a very ancient, pulverizing iceberg. It’s a glacial menace which, if I may refer to suddenly paradoxical Global Warming—you know, a lot of the Right tends not to credit the idea—never had any intention of moving, melting, or Trickling Down at all. If these really are the roots, is there not some ground for bi-partisan accord? The left and the right differ on the subject of tax codes and health care, but surely no one countenances les droits du seigneur anymore.

A Sense of History is way more than mere contemporary critique. It posits that the presumptions and privileges that we may associate with plutocratic capitalism are actually, positively feudal. Everyone knows that feudalism was superannuated by printing presses, Reformation, Enlightenment, burgeoning and actual democracies, with mercantilism providing a complicated but measurable benefit all the way through. Alas, say the landed gentry. Even more, away with all that! Magna Carta, after all, was conceived to protect aristocratic, landed interests against royal incursion or presumption. The peasant and working classes had little to do with that initial exchange.The protagonist of this film ardently yearns for those good, old days. The film itself wonders if those days have really ended.

Can that be true? This is satire, and a fable besides. As with writers from Aesop to Bunyan to all the people who invented Monsters, Inc. (or Monsters vs. Aliens), Broadbent is drawing analogies. Once again, his main character really represents institutions and ideas. He is, in fact, a kind of objective correlative: an object or situation that symbolizes the concept that is being expressed, as well as the emotions that situation or concept evoke. (Cf. T.S. Eliot, 1920, “Hamlet and his Problems,” from The Sacred Wood; also, at the level of an entire mindset that gets theorized as a Movement, Martin Esslin, 1961, The Theatre of the Absurd.)

Absurdism uses the objective correlative all the time. Absurdism surveys the field and describes its dilemmas very effectively. Absurdism occasionally commiserates, and even comforts (cf. the fairly frequent stabs of tenderness in Beckett, or the constant subtext of fraternal regard in the oeuvre of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy). It can certainly wallow. But what answers does it give us, especially since those objects and situations are so figurative? What can we actually do?

Check out that definition again. Since the objective correlative is supposed to clarify things, we probably ought to be careful when we emerge out of the satirical and back into the world of real relations. With regard to political discourse, we ought not to get caught up in objectifying the individuals that adhere to the ideas in question. This is especially true if, in the course of our satirizing, we have succumbed to caricature. Be mad! But be fair first!

More than just fairness is at issue here, or at stake. It is generally thought that Jonathan Swift’s righteous anger, so relentless and so often ineffectual, broke his heart and drove him mad. Read the scarifying fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels (1726); if and since this is what Swift really thought and felt, then it all stands to reason. What peace could there be for him?

There is another way, one that doesn’t necessarily require appeasement in the face of evil, or the turning of a soul-destroying blind eye. There may be malice and villainy. There may even, occasionally, be evil. But what if we fought that only, and didn’t look for it where there’s only sincere error, or even a difference in opinion. The thing: in real life, as real individuals, millionaires are probably, certainly, often, very nice people. So, too, maybe and mostly, Thatcher, Reagan, Kohl, Mulroney, as well as the current 1 and 5 and even 25 percent. “The truly terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons…”

All of this honours what we feel and know about our fellow human beings. It has a place in political discourse as well. Calm political-scientifical thought tends to credit hegemony, to avoid crying conspiracy. (“Then who do I shoot?” says the just-evicted farmer to tractor driver who’s only doing his job in John Ford’s film version of The Grapes Wrath. Good, impossible question!) But hegemony or not, conditions remain. Savage satire isn’t nearly as savage as the actual reality, at least for the throngs that don’t get represented in this film, or remotely considered by its protagonist. This was 1992, and now it’s a lot later. It can seem like things haven’t improved a lot, can’t it?

Remember Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, taking all the credit when poor old ex-convicted, sweat-of-his-brow Magwitch did all the work? Great Expectations (1861) eviscerates the feudal holdovers that continued to dominate in mid-Victorian times. (George Orwell points out with affectionate frustration that Dickens, for all his semi-progressive calls-to-action, was finally, immoveably medieval in mind and social instinct. We’re a muddle, aren’t we? See “Dickens,” in the posthumous A Collection of Essays, from 1954.) Reflecting contemporary complexity, David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Dickens’ great novel mourns and then ultimately endorses the end of Empire. Isn’t that the trajectory of Pip’s character? It’s all attractive, especially when it’s to our advantage. But it’s also, mostly immoral, so it has to go. And then everything else has to change. Yes, he won the war for us, but I’m voting for Atlee.

1992? Now? UK? US?! A Sense of History says that at the end of the Thatcher era certain toffs, and the institutions that comfort them, consider material privilege and social pre-eminence to be their perfect and absolute right. From all appearances those rights are actually maintained and protected, even legislated. This, regardless of what merit or industry or justice or decency might have to say about it.

The actual feudal period had its graces and beauties, its consolations and compensations. It ended, as did most of its Unities, giving way to four or five hundred bright, hellish years of emerging and actual modernity. Disaster and divine beauty attended. But wait! If everything had to change, and everything did change, then why is it that the Lairds still retain their ancient place and status? Especially when Aquinas, Giotto and the Religious World View have been been replaced by Futurism, epidemical political cynicism and, let’s face it, Fascism. Change, Now!

Am I putting words in the filmmakers’ mouths? Have I appropriated their film? How about this question? Does it matter? Shall we not admit it? These ideologies are built, depend on, and insure the continuing and permanent disadvantage of others.

Satire isn’t just for fun, but for reflection. What about our outside-of-the-film life? All of this back and forth, this exact permanent problem could put you in the mind of England’s Charles 1st. Things have happened to people that think they have divinely granted rights and advantages that place them permanently above everyone else. And yet, we don’t want to be Cromwell, though, do we? On the other hand, maybe civility is a problem sometimes. Is that this film’s subliminal thesis, or directive? Murder ‘em! After all of my own noodling and equivocation, perhaps we can agree that this is still and finally a film that is sure of itself. Furiously impressive stuff!