A Richard Curtis film set in Middlesbrough is a cinematic oxymoron. Even Milton Keynes seems unlikely. Mainly because foppish glamour, snuggly love, and a polite ethos of chummy charity doesn’t sit comfortably in the imagination with ship-building and a night out on the brown ale in the Pig and Whistle.
A Richard Curtis film is, in this sense, comparatively well defined, to the point where the Curtis corpus becomes a near sole point of reference for an entire genre: the British Rom Com. It has a set of generic ingredients, which, if stirred and stewed in the right way, can produce subtle variations on a prize-winning dish.
What are these ingredients? Location is one. There are two carefully modulated places: London and a home counties, commuter-belt area vaguely outside London populated by Norman churches, thatched cottages, and sweeping estates. But London is the main location, and a very particular kind of London – Sir Christopher Wren’s London, The Ritz, Downing Street, Notting Hill, South Bank; and somewhere tucked away behind these landmarks of the capital there are rows of Edwardian terraced ‘Habitat-chic’ housing.
But films are not just made of bricks, mortar, and passing land rovers. They have values. And the values of Curtis films are no less emphatic. They are proudly and purposefully liberal. The limelight may be occupied by a conventional handsome man struggling through the familiar fog of ‘peculiarly English’ male social ineptitude to join romantic forces with a glamorous American girl, but Curtis lets his peripheral characters cast an important shadow over the main narrative. He repeatedly gives popular screen time to physical and mental disability in a way that is inclusive and non-patronising. All films are effortlessly uncomfortable around sexism, racism, jingoism, and he takes pleasure in wacky, wayward characters ( which might, possibly, be construed as ‘cultural diversity’).
But one of the main demons is arrogance. Or to put it the other way around, one of the main virtues is modesty, or humility, which furnishes a repeatedly high-standard – if stock-in-trade – brand of self-deprecating humour. This is one of the core facets of all the films: the humour is edifying, improving; it has something of the Church of England about it (even Curtis’ atheism, derived from the problem that an omnibenevolent creator God would surely not tolerate suffering in his creatures, is – like a lot of liberal atheism in England – peculiarly C of E).
Much of the humour in the films comes by making mischief with the central characters, subjecting them to ritual humiliation or simply making them look silly. There is an implication that coping with this kind of silliness, incongruity, and humiliation is nearly a duty, a behavioural corollary of which is self-deprecation. The conflict in the stories of each film turns on a moral defensiveness that flares up in the face of a less self-effacing (or more arrogant) weltanschaung. It maybe unfair, but this defensiveness seems to be progressively taking a more prominent role (the title ‘Love Actually’, could just as easily be read as a statement equivalent to a line drawn in the sand – ‘Not all that sixties claptrap about love?’ said the obscurantist father spooning out the marmalade. ‘Yes, love actually,’ replied his recalcitrant but slightly flighty daughter).
In this sense, Curtis’ humour is not irreverent and anarchic but an expression of firmly held, albeit moderate, beliefs. This particular genre of filmmaking is the pulpit for a set of values including love, compassion, kindness, charity, open-mindedness, and it is at the vanguard of a whole cultural – largely well-spoken and female – group who have grown up to scrutinise the moral integrity of foodstuffs and use their spare pocket money to start outreach companies.
So, there is a setting (London with a bit of posh greenery around the edges), a moral universe (‘All you need is love and there but for the grace of God go I’), and there is crucially a basic faith that this moral universe will stand up in the face of all challenges, that the relationship, in spite of all obstacles, will work out, that love will conquer all – that the ‘Good’ will out. In other words the films end ‘happily’, in a way that is not too dissimilar to the Hollywood dream factory.
Like Hollywood happy-ending films, Curtis uses all the considerable draw of glamour, style, sex, and celebrity to bring to the fore the moral universe of his world – his very ‘English’ world. Curtis has created stars out of his films. When asking, ‘What are the core components of a Richard Curtis film?’ you almost certainly have to answer ‘Hugh Grant’. But Grant is a strange creature in cinematic terms – he is a British movie star. Not a character actor, or even a thesp (both of which England produces in abundance). He is a screen presence in his own right, inhabiting permanently an archetypal role: the good-humoured, modest English gentleman. He is an English John Wayne. The lead roles in all his films are taken by equally glamorous characters, strictly non-representative of the British population. And, as noted, glamorous characters live and operate in glamorous places – like the finer parts of London. You could say that by choosing locations in the UK very selectively, inhabiting them with beautiful cut-glass actors and actresses (for the lead roles) and wrapping around them a progressive, familial and romantic narrative, Curtis has created a popular English aesthetic through which to deliver a popular – idealised – ethos.
To bring it back to amino acids, Curtis has created an entire British mythology, sexy, sumptuous, gentle and funny, idealistic, fantastically unreal but recurrently and infectiously watchable.
One of the words emblazoned on the banners of Curtis’ detractors is ‘cynicism’. If you were to start from the premise that films should depict reality, presumably you also start with an assumption that there is an easily objectified reality waiting out there to be filmed. The vast array of social realities that exist in England, (many, if not most of which, are wildly inconsistent with the paragon of Great Britishness sold to the world through Richard Curtis films) gives many people good ground to think cynically about his oeuvre. But do any of them have a unique claim to a definition of social reality? Arguably as soon as you stick a camera in front of something, you embark on a strange process of reality distortion regardless of the context. Curtis’ skill is that he distorts it in such an engaging and successful way.
Curtis’ films aren’t real; they are fantasies with a singular vision but it shows a canny and unique sensitivity that he has managed to create something that speaks so popularly to the UK and also abroad, and which also creates – I repeat – a whole mythology around British identity.
Perhaps the frustrating thing about Richard Curtis is not that he depicts a popcorn view of England and its culture but that this view is the only one to have achieved a popular status. Which in turn begs the question, where are the imaginative powers of British cinema? Possibly in America. Or possibly in independent film, but will that ever speak to the same broad audience? If you compare Curtis with other myth makers, there are differences. American filmmakers, from John Ford to David Lynch, have mythologised America repeatedly, mainly through small-town communities rather than east-coast cosmopolitan aristocracies. Perhaps this means it only takes a filmmaker with a bit of popular imagination to turn the industrial streets of Middlesbrough or the bleak consumerist burp that is Basingstoke into something that popular artists don’t pass over with a polite cough.
It is a sad reflection on British culture if its only dreams take place in the imagination of Notting Hill.