The Biopic and British National Identity
Edited by Homer B. Pettey and R. Barton Palmer
SUNY Series – Horizons of Cinema
Albany (New York): SUNY Press, 2019
Paperback. xxix + 329 p. ISBN 978-1438471129. $26.95
Reviewed by Nicole Cloarec
Université Rennes 1
A commonplace in academic studies about biopics is to start recalling how much the genre has long been neglected by scholars as it was deemed “of very low repute” [Bingham : 3], too popular and formulaic. Biopics may be a relatively recent field of study, they nonetheless have been the subject of a significant number of challenging scholarly works, reflecting the recent ongoing popular and commercial success of the genre since the 1990s as well as the “biographical turn” in historiography and literature. After George Custen’s seminal analysis (1992) that focused on the classical Hollywood form, academic studies have highlighted the key role that biopics play in building up representations of the past. And while many have stressed the fluidity and hybridity of the genre, they also all strive to offer some original angles, focusing on thematic groupings and issues of representation along perspectives of gender, socio-professional categories or national history and national identity. In this regard, Tom Brown & Belen Vidal aptly stated that “the biopic feeds fantasies of national identity” . As its title clearly indicates, Rule, Britannia! The Biopic and British National Identity follows this latest trend. Rule, Britannia! comprises essays of scholars from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. It is composed of a preface and 14 articles, organised in an introduction and three thematic parts.
As the editors explain in the preface, the volume was actually conceived as a sequel to a previous collection of essays about biopics and the American national identity, also published by SUNY press and edited by William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer, the latter also co-editor of the present volume. In the introduction of this former book entitled Invented Lives, Imagined Communities : The Biopic and American National Identity, William H. Epstein engaged in theoretical issues involved in defining national identity, following the founding figures of Benedict Anderson (1983) and Anthony D. Smith (1991). He also outlined questions related to life writing studies and biopics, expanding on Custen’s and Bingham’s work.
It may therefore be understandable that for their preface the editors of Rule, Britannia! chose not to focus again on the theoretical aspects of life writing studies in general or of biopics in particular. Instead, the preface mainly deals with the thorny issue of what a British national identity could mean. Drawing on political theorists and historians like Tom Nairn (1977), Krishan Kumar (2003) or Michael Kenny (2014), it thus purports “to acknowledge and briefly outline, the difficulties of long-standing about the peculiar status of the UK and what identity is now offered to its citizens, topics that British filmmakers would hardly escape negotiating in biographical pictures devoted to figures of cultural importance and worthiness” [xii]. It also rightly stresses that there is no resolution to defining such vexing key notions as ‘nation’ and ‘identity’ and clearly states that any type of definition of a British national identity must not only be pluralistic but also ever-evolving, driven by competing cultural strands. Hence the warning right at the beginning of the preface that the book’s title is meant to be an ironical comment on the main subject tackled in the volume, namely “how screen portraits of the country’s great and notable might be understood as involved, if unofficially, in the shaping and promotion of an ever-protean national identity” [xi].
In view of such a compelling conclusion, it is a little disconcerting to find some overlapping use of terms between English and British, as testifies a sentence like “this collection also demonstrates and celebrates the multiplicities of identities that continue to define England”  while the paragraph discusses British national identity. One can also be surprised to read that “rapid change has meant that much of the not considerable literature devoted to the British biopic has been in the last few years rendered out of date”, citing Jeffrey Richards’s Films and British National Identity (1997) as a case in point since Richards’s book does not deal with biopics, or to find that Northern Ireland is comprised of “three (sic) Northern counties” [xx].
More importantly the reader may find it frustrating that the preface does not delve further into issues more closely related to the specificity of the biopic genre in British cinema. The reason for this becomes apparent with the editorial choice of a first article that is also meant to function as an introduction and provide “an example of bio-cinematicization that challenges the customary Progressiveness of the screen memorialization of national figures” [xxviii]. Homer B. Pettey’s “Introduction : The Kray Twins and Biographical Media” focuses on three biopics of the notorious Kray brothers. The article is extremely informative and well-argued, comparing the facts and events that are selected in the different biopics. Most interestingly, it also examines the twins’ biographies and biopics within the context of British national identity as they saw it. Still, one can wonder in what way a pair of psychopathic criminals can be idiosyncratic as regards British identity – apart from being closely associated to a specific time, the 1960s, and a place, London. However odd the choice may seem, Pettey’s claim is that the Kray biopics do reflect pervasive issues of British national identity. In particular, his conclusion raises a number of thematic and formal issues that will be tackled in the other articles, issues pertaining to the biopic genre in general but are given a British inflection. These include:
-the biographees’ relationships to the media that may also determine the intermedial use of other media in the film;
-the exploration of the disparities between public figure and private individual;
-the sense of one’s destiny being tied to national history;
-the use of marital conflicts or sexuality to allegorise political and social problems;
-the questioning of consensual discourses of national identity through transgressive behaviour which can be conveyed on a thematic as well as a formal level, thus challenging the staid “middlebrow” reputation of the genre.
While dealing with a wide range of production periods – from 1912 (Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth) to 2016 (Riper Street) – and of genres – from mainstream to art cinema, including some television fictions and series – all articles provide revealing case studies that investigate various aspects of life writing on screen in relation to British history, culture and national identity.
Unsurprisingly the first part of the volume is devoted to “Royalty and Politicians”. Since “the very idea of monarchy […] is deeply embedded in the stories Britain tells about itself” [Sandbrook: 192], three articles appropriately focus on figures of monarchs.
The first article, though, may be a little puzzling since it is only loosely related to the heading and puts the emphasis on the marginal over the typical. Marcia Landy’s “The Biopic, the Nation, and Counter-History in the Films of Derek Jarman” actually deals with Derek Jarman’s three biopics, about the painter Caravaggio, King Edward II through the adaptation of Marlowe’s play and the philosopher Wittgenstein. The article discusses “Jarman’s uses of self that intertwine biography and autobiography”  through which Jarman’s biographical films “present a heritage that is oppositional in form and content”  and clearly demonstrates how Derek Jarman appropriates and subverts the genre to construct a counter-history that can inscribe his own personal marginality and political agenda. One can only deplore the poor editorial work (typos, omissions of words) that prevents a smooth reading and mars the quality of the article. Fortunately it is not at all representative of the high editorial quality of the other articles.
Homer B. Pettey’s “Elizabeth I and the Life of Visual Culture” starts with a comprehensive historiography of Elisabeth’s biopics through the ages both in British and American cinema. Pettey then focuses on the political use that Elisabeth I made of her portraits. Using both contextual and formal analysis, his intermedial study of these portraits shows how they determine the queen’s representation in films, in particular how they dramatise Elisabeth’s dual body (personal and regal).
Interestingly, the next article is again devoted to a female sovereign and takes up the same gendered question of a dichotomy between femininity and sovereignty. In “Gender and Authority in Queen Victoria Films” Jeffrey Richards first looks into the reasons of the public’s fascination for royalty in biopics. He detects two simultaneous, and apparently contradictory, processes at work, which are mythologisation and humanisation [67-68]. The case of Queen Victoria is then studied as the first “media monarch” , namely living at the advent of modern mass media, and from a gender perspective, arguing that “during her reign she moved successively through the various phases of approved nineteenth-century models of womanhood”. Richards’s article is certainly one of the most comprehensive overviews of Victoria biopics, starting with a genealogy of the selection of incidents that will set a pattern to her life on screen, then detailing each film that is analysed in their context of production.
Giselle Bastin in “The Re-Centering of the Monarch in the Royal Biopic: The Queen and The King’s Speech” focuses on two films that deal with a constitutional crisis. Her contention is that they follow a long tradition of films that “favor storylines that stress the enduring continuity of the Crown in times of social and political upheaval” . The reader will find interesting echoes with the former two articles through the notion of the “King’s Two Bodies” and the critical use of the media to communicate the symbolic function of the monarchy. She therefore concludes that “both films continue to utilize the structuring conceits of early biopics in their enlisting of audience identification with the sovereigns’ mediated selves as they are portrayed through portraiture and photographs, but they further the thesis that for the monarch to be truly royal then he or she must embody royalness beyond imagery” .
The last article in this first part, Linda Ruth Williams’s “The Iron Lady : Politics and/in Performance,” switches to the controversial figure of Margaret Thatcher. Drawing on the artistic team’s comments and promotional discourse that testify to the unease of making a biopic about such a divisive political figure, Williams takes up one of the main questions that has been recurring in reviews and academic papers, namely whether it is possible or appropriate to make a feminist film about a woman overtly hostile to women’s rights, but who used her femininity as much as some traditionally “male” qualities. Williams thus contends that the film nevertheless “foregrounds gender politics, particularly through an investigation of ageing”, so that this “narrative decision to read female power through frailty is what makes it most interesting and most vulnerable, an uneasily feminist film in a contested political visual field” . More specifically, Williams compellingly relates the question of female leadership to the question of authorship both in filmmaking and actor’s performance.
Part II “Artistic Biography” examines biopics about or around the lives of the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the writers Charles Dickens and Iris Murdoch and the painters Dora Carrington and Francis Bacon.
Deborah Cartmell’s “Casting the British Biopic: The Barretts of Wimpole Street 1934-1957” actually shifts focus on “the creation of a Hollywood British identity, simultaneously fetishising and demonizing the British, while covertly valorizing American values” . Her article highlights the key role of casting in so far as “biographical films were soon to be identified as “actors’ pictures” . Throughout a comparative study of the two films adapted from the same play, it offers an enlightening case of a remake that turned out to be a commercial and critical failure while the original was successful. Cartmell proposes a number of explanations that throw light on the evolution of the subgenre of the female artistic biopic and the American perception of “British-ness”.
While setting her analysis as part of her research in “theorizing the literary biopic in relation to wider discourses of history and identity” , Hila Shachar’s “The Muse’s Tale : Rewriting the English Author in The Invisible Woman” focuses on Ralph Fiennes’s film based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’s mistress during the last years of his career. Shachar identifies a number of “signs” or symbols from the Victorian era that have become “shorthand for ‘Britishness’” , although the national exclusivity of the corset for example may be debatable. Her contention is that “The Invisible Woman’s visual language utilizes the sea to project a counter narrative to the dominant nineteenth-century ideals of individuality, nationality and authority (in both sense of the word)” . Shachar’s demonstration then aptly focuses on the trope of the “mysterious silenced woman” that suggests the potential of an oppositional tale while “not seeking to create newly triumphant [stories]” .
In “A Matter of Life and Art : Artist Biopics in Post-Thatcher Britain”, Jim Leach offers a compelling overview of the common tropes and conventional emplotment that characterise the subgenre of artist biopics. His choice to study two films as different as Christopher Hampton’s Carrington (1995) and John Maybury’s Love is the Devil (1998) may at first sight seem surprising but is given justification by the scarcity of biopics on British painters. Leach also demonstrates that despite the significant differences in the films’ aesthetic approaches as well as in the biographees’ artistic style, both films “share an interest in artists who […] refused to separate their art from their lives, creating personas that contested and interacted with established discourses of national identity” . Leach bases his argumentation on a careful investigation into how the filmmakers have used the existing biographical discourses while paying attention to the films’ production context, arguing that the two biopics can also be viewed as “responses to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s years in power” .
In the concluding article of the second part Mark Luprecht takes up Bingham’s definition of women’s biography as a subgenre to show how Richard Eyre’s biopic about Iris Murdoch challenges his conclusions. “Closer and Closer Apart : Questioning Identities in Richard Eyre’s Iris” purports to demonstrate why “Iris is a fine work of cinematic art, but rather fails as biography” . As a specialist of Iris Murdoch’s work, Luprecht proceeds to review the objections that were made to the film, listing the discrepancies between facts and fiction. His own analysis actually shifts focus on how Iris Murdoch problematised the notions of identity and of self, using the film, alongside other biographical documents such as her husband’s memoir and her own letters and books, to illustrate this point.
The third and last part entitled “Crimes and Warfare” comprises some intriguing case-studies that probably raise the most original theoretical questions in the volume.
In “Carving the National Body : Jack the Ripper”, Dominic Lennard scrutinises the stereotypes of Jack the Ripper in several popular films. He relates the enduring appeal of the Ripper films to the cultural significance of the character insofar as it questions the British social class structure. “With their focus on a corrupt nobility” Lennard argues, “Ripper narratives typically react to the anachronism of the aristocracy, while legitimizing bourgeois status and control” . Ripper films thus reflect contemporary concerns about social fragmentation while also contributing to the cinematic construction of the East End of London.
R. Barton Palmer’s “Leslie Howard’s The First of the Few (1942) : The Patriotic Biopic as Star Vehicle” starts with an apposite reflection on the frequent slippage between the notion of British and English. The article offers a fascinating case of convergence between the lead actor’s persona and the biographee’s life, each resonating with each other. Indeed Howard’s biopic of R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, perfectly illustrates the crucial role of casting in biopics, which here is “unusually significant”  because of Howard’s many contributions to the war effort. The film thus becomes a “stealth biopic of sorts, whose subject in part is its principal actor” (who was also the director and producer of the film) . Palmer rightly explains that the film is a striking exception to the common rule of self-effacing impersonation since Leslie Howard “does NOT disappear into his impersonification of Mitchell, who was in any case not known enough in life” . Palmer then evokes Mitchell’s life to examine how the film distorted historical facts.
Murray Pomerance’s “Who the Man Who Never Was, Was” offers another case of historical distortion. Ronald Neame’s film The Man Who Never Was (1956), based on Ewen Montagu’s book of the same name, also provides another challenge to “the long-lived convention underlying biopics” of “a simple and direct compatibility between the identity of the subject and a widespread public familiarity” . Not only have the story’s two central figures, the organiser of the spy project Ewen Montagu and its main figure known as “Major William Martin”, hardly been heard of, but the film’s subject is precisely a curious case of hidden identity, questioning the boundaries of the biopic genre while focusing on the question of characterisation. Pomerance gives a detailed account of the history of the 1943 espionage project itself before examining the story of the production of the film and how it rewrote history. In particular Pomerance highlights how the film obliterated the Jewish heritage of its principal protagonist, the erasure of which, for the author, “remains the most intriguing and disturbing silence in the darkest void” .
Last, Erica Sheen’s “Secrecy and Exposure : The Cambridge Spies” again points out the paradox of making “films that tell the truth about liars”  and making biopics about people whose identify is supposed to remain secret. Sheen’s focus, however, is on a famous case in the history of British espionage, which has come to be known as the Cambridge Spies. Her article examines a group of films about the Cambridge Spies through both contextual analysis and as part of a continuum of texts that connects film, television, journalism, theatre and literature. Sheen thus highlights the seminal influence of Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), which initiated a “dynamic of serialization”  through the very idea of a “Third Man”. She then analyses each work’s context of production to understand the contested social and political values that underpin the story but also to examine the different narrative and technical means through which it is conveyed.
If the reader may feel a little frustrated by the partly inconclusive theoretical framework of the preface and introduction, the articles of Rule, Britannia! offer thought-challenging case studies that discuss a wide range of theoretical questions, opening up a large spectrum of valuable leads for research on both the biopic genre in general and its specificity in British film. Whether they focus on famous figures like monarchs or much lesser-known individuals such as the designer of the Spitfire, the studies clearly demonstrate how biopics tap into the collective representations of the nation, either to consolidate or to challenge them. It is noteworthy that most of the cases examined in this volume provide some types of counter-history or counter-models to a normative idea of what Englishness or Britishness should be. In this respect, both editors have successfully met their challenge in contributing to the ongoing debating and defining “a British national identity” as an ever-evolving cultural construct.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983). Revised edition. London: Verso, 2016.
Bingham, Dennis. Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 2010.
Brown, Tom and Belen, Vidal (eds). The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture. New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.
Custen, George. Bio/Pics : How Hollywood Constructed History. New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Epstein, William H. and Palmer, R. Barton (eds). Invented Lives, Imagined Communities : The Biopic and American National Identity. Albany (New York): Suny Press, 2016.
Kenny, Michael. The Politics of English Nationhood. Oxford: University Press, 2014.
Kumar, Krishan. The Making of English National Identity. Cambridge: University Press, 2003.
Nairn, Tom. The Break-Up of Britain : Crisis and Neo-nationalism (1977). 3rd edition. Champaign (Illinois): Common Ground, 2015.
Sandbrook, Dominic. The Great British Dream Factory (2015). London: Penguin, 2016.
Smith, Anthony D. National Identity (1991). New Edition. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993.
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