Stiff Upper Lip | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

Stiff Upper Lip 

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** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Stellman

Written by Stellman and Trix Worrell

With Denzel Washington, George Baker, and Amanda Redman.

Greed is good, the American tycoon (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street sermonized, taking his text from the actual utterances of billionaire Donald Trump. In the 80s, a trait that even Adam Smith deemed at best a necessary evil has become an admirable thing, a mark of moral distinction. The path to personal maturity and lots of loot is paved with guilt-free selfishness, so goes the message propounded by everyone from the President's Council of Economic Advisers on down to the hordes of self-help books in your local bookstore. In Britain, the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher, like Reagan here, has zealously promoted the public virtues of private avarice, exhibiting plenty of faith and hope and absolutely no charity. (Thatcher, incidentally, made her fortune the old-fashioned way: she married a man who had inherited it.) Government must serve and protect the keenest predators, rather than pamper the public with silly rights or wasteful aid, because the "magic of the marketplace" guarantees justice--and if it doesn't, so what? Screw you. I'm all right, Jack.

One hardly can name a mainstream American feature--apart from Stone's Wall Street and John Carpenter's They Live--that confronts or satirizes chic reactionary values. In Britain dissenting filmmakers, often with crucial funding from the independent Channel Four, are less inhibited and more prolific. If the Iron Lady succeeds (and she is trying) in creating a kind of "Committee on Un-British Activities," impertinent filmmakers will be irresistible targets.

The rogues' gallery of anti-Thatcher films includes movies that are, of course, wildly uneven in quality, clarity, and punch: inexhaustively, there are Richard Eyre's The Ploughman's Lunch (1983); the Stephen Frears-Hanif Kureishi collaborations My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and the muddled Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987); Chris Bernard's cloying Letter to Brezhnev (1986); the egregious and indigestible Eat the Rich (1987); and the dizzyingly manic, punishing cynicism of Bruce Robinson's How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1988). And let us not ignore the thread of despair running even through the rumpled lives of the countercultural couple in Mike Leigh's carnival of class caricatures, High Hopes. All these films deplore Thatcher's scorched-earth brand of economics and her mission to make the culture ever more mercenary, ever more callous. Still, lacking an oppositional vision, these fringe cinematic assaults are really only mild nuisances, and at most stir raucous laughs or rueful frowns. After a decade of imperious Tory rule, British filmmakers either fail to see or are too shy to suggest any way out, any alternative to the noxious situations they depict. As in the recently released High Hopes and For Queen & Country, the current British trend--with the invigorating exception of the brilliant PBS telecast A Very British Coup--is to dump charming yet stoical folks into unyielding adversities, and hope the audience sticks it out.

Go on. Try to dislike the shaggy and good-natured couple in High Hopes. It's no less difficult to dislike the soft-spoken black Londoner and ex-paratrooper Reuben (Denzel Washington, wielding a wavering if passable south London accent) in For Queen & Country. A veteran of combat in the 1982 Falklands war and of service in Northern Ireland, Reuben discovers upon his discharge that the British government views him as unwelcome in England as any "Argy" he ever shot at, or, for that matter, any "Paddy." (In the Northern Irish Catholic community no British regiment--except perhaps for the Green Beret-style Special Air Service--is more loathed and feared than the paratroopers.) After eight years of army duty, he sets up in a public high-rise flat and earnestly tries to create a reasonable life despite the blandishments of drug dealers, the racism of local police, and systematic discrimination against people of the "wrong" skin pigment in the lower social strata of class-divided Britain. The film--based partly on actual events befalling a discharged black soldier in the mid-1980s--is well acted, fashions an achingly sordid Clockwork Orange-like milieu, and effectively--but for a contrived concluding shoot-out--depicts a British state growing ever more negligent toward ordinary citizens, and still worse toward darker skins.

For Queen & Country opens with an improbable scene of soldiers in civilian clothes reeling out of a Northern Irish pub at closing time to face a sudden sniper ambush. (The ambush is likely; that soldiers would carelessly gather in a pub in a guerrilla zone is not.) Reuben is wounded but saved by a trusty Caucasian sidekick nicknamed "Fish" (Dorian Healy). Cut to several years later aboard an invasion ship; Reuben crouches in full combat gear, ready to spring through a door into the frozen Falklands night. Cut two more years later to Reuben, freshly discharged, getting rough treatment from not-so-amiable constables who are dumbfounded at the notion that this bit of riffraff fought in a "British war"--meaning a ruddy white-complexioned conflict. Later Reuben fends off an offer of employment from a drug dealer, is manipulated by a local thug into lying to the police, and strikes up a warm acquaintance with a tough-tender woman (Amanda Redman) next door after capturing her sticky-fingered teenage daughter ripping off items in his flat. The public-housing estate resembles a concrete fortress--a displaced piece of the Maginot Line, maybe--and teems with thieves, junkies, prostitutes, and a wide assortment of ne'er-do-wells.

What is especially troublesome about the film is its conventional strategy for eliciting audience sympathy, and an unnecessarily narrow focus on Reuben as the only--if briefly--admirable fellow around. Instead of examining sources of poverty and the impact of racism on other residents of strong character as well, the filmmakers are satisfied to contrast Reuben's rather stolid nobility with the motley group of creeps and losers infesting the area, every last one involved in stupid and (self-)destructive mischief. Behaving exactly the way Tories believe this rabble behaves.

The decision to elevate Reuben to the status of semi-superhero and moral avenger detracts from the film's dramatic and critical thrust. One easily imagines a Thatcher supporter, equipped with the customary social-Darwinist views, departing the cinema with the comfortable impression that the hoi polloi on-screen richly deserve their destitute and degraded lives. The only real hitch is when Reuben, born on a British Commonwealth island, shockingly is denied a passport because of new Tory immigration laws that rescind his British citizenship (which did in fact happen to a black veteran of the Falklands war). The film then shifts into an even higher melodramatic gear, blazing headlong toward a minor Armageddon. And our astute Tory will shrug and perhaps tut-tut that, really, one ought to adjust the fluke in the law responsible for Reuben's plight, and then all will be well in this best of all possible worlds. Still, a hotheaded chappie, what? For Queen & Country ends with a gratuitous and silly bang, which may be a slight improvement on the (sometimes charming) whimpers with which British films customarily end. Then again, maybe not.

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