Do we need tough films in hard times?

I recently saw Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a film about the speed with which one person (Gwyneth Paltrow!) transmits a deadly virus around the world, and how equally quickly society itself falls victim to panic, fear and rioting before a vaccine is found. Then I saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay’s version of Lionel Schriver’s brilliant book of the same name. Here, a mother tries to understand how her son became the perpetrator of a horrific high-school massacre. Also currently showing is Gus Van Sant’s Restless, a depiction of a youthful yet terminally-ill cancer patient who befriends a boy who likes to attend the funerals of strangers. Cheering stuff! And yet, I’ve always loved the medium of film because nothing transports the viewer so completely, and emotionally, to new worlds of possibility. Additionally I see it as one of humanity’s most accurate barometers, or perhaps mirrors. In other words, to tell the story of a culture, one need only look at its movies. So what are we saying at the moment?

Certainly, when the brochure for the 55th BFI London Film Festival arrived, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store. And having now watched a handful of previews and read the synopses of other screenings, it’s blindingly obvious that all is not well with the world. And it looks set to get worse.

The Festival opened with Fernando Meirelles’s 360, ‘a daisy-chain of infidelity, grief, prostitution and murder’, to quote Nick Curtis, writing eloquently in the London Evening Standard. Ralph Fiennes’s celluloid version of Coriolanus is also on the menu. I’d seen him in the title role when it was staged at the Almeida in 2000 and left after the first half unable to stomach much more of the gore and mayhem without the support of a worthwhile plot. Wanton war, rioting, vengeance and murder is not really my thing, even if it is by Shakespeare. Then there was Shame, an unrelenting, full-frontal, fuckfest in which actor Michael Fassbender battles sex addiction, directed by Steve McQueen. Post screening of this fresh vision of pornographic hell, I felt utterly sullied. I guess I should have known. The last time this duo collaborated, it was on the equally gruesome Hunger, a grim portrayal of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes featuring faeces-smeared prison walls. I also saw a Japanese film, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samuri. I suppose I could have predicted the content of this one too, but still, it was ‘World Cinema’ and I thought it might be beautiful. In retrospect, I’m not sure ritual suicide can ever be artistic. Again, I couldn’t help wondering what compelled the making of such unedifyingly miserable fare.

Sure the festival also includes Madonna’s Wallis Simpson epic, W.E., aka the tale of a manipulative Hitler supporter; a double dose of the ever fragrant George Clooney, first in The Descendants as a flawed father faced with a parental wake-up call as his wife lies locked in a coma, then directing and starring in The Ides of March, a political yarn of ‘ambition, loyalty, betrayal and revenge’ according to the BFI website; and finally the eternally lovely Rachel Weisz appears in the festival’s closing gala, The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation by Terence Davies of Terence Rattigan’s tragic post-war tale of forbidden love, fear and suppressed desire. As the trailer warns, ‘Beware of passion, it always leads to something ugly’.

It’s not that I need my films to perpetually boast a happy ending, and certainly there are some lighter offerings among the depictions of pathos and turpitude I’ve chosen to highlight. But my concern remains: why are there so many films being made with seemingly no purpose other than a resoundingly negative reflection of our current state of social decline? This is profoundly depressing. We all know we’re in the shit, so would a little more uplift or a redemptive ending, be too much to ask? Or maybe a moral lesson to conclude our viewing, so that we may at least depart the cinema feeling somewhat enlightened? It’s just, dare I say it, that as our newspapers, from tabloid to broadsheet, chase circulation with graphic front-page photos of bloodied corpses, something a touch more light-hearted might be better for boosting morale. No wonder I enjoyed Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English Reborn so much. And to think the critics mauled it.