Back in 2004, Michael Moore scored the biggest box office hit of his career. Fahrenheit 9/11 was Moore’s reaction to the horrific events of September 11th 2001, and specifically the political changes that followed in its aftermath. Savagely critical of the George W Bush administration, the film also leaked online, and was widely seen ahead of the 2004 US presidential election.
In said election, Bush grew his vote, won a majority in the popular ballot, increased his electoral vote tally, and was re-elected as President of the United States.
Why? Well, amongst the many reasons, maybe Moore was preaching a little to the converted. And the same may well be said of Russell Brand and Michael Winterbottom’s new documentary, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
At heart, this is an extension of the political conversation Brand has been trying to have for the past couple of years. But by nature of this being a feature, he has your attention for an hour and a half, and it’s clear from the off that he intends to use it.
Across the film’s running time, his main thrust is the 2008 collapse of the financial system, and the consequences – or lack of – that followed. As such, there are moments where Brand heads into the offices of banking giants such as HSBC and Lloyds, and gets the shrift you expect him to get. He contrasts this by finding stories of people working every hour, yet struggling to make ends meet. And of a looter during the London riots of 2011, comparing his treatment to that of the banking fraternity.
He also has a statistical spine to his argument. Brand discusses the contrast in wealth of the top 1% of earners against the rest of the population, and examines how that gap has widened. He quotes lots of numbers, the source of which isn’t always clear on screen, yet his argument – however you feel about it – is compelling and passionately put forward.
There are a few moments throughout the film where the cult of Russell Brand’s celebrity status bubble up – such as when he takes to the streets of London to protest outside the likes of Topshop and Vodafone – but as he drives a large advertising hoarding past the headquarters of banks, you can’t accuse him of lacking the courage of his convictions.
In much the same way that Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, used 95% of its running time to hit you with cold, hard arguments before coming up with some remedies right at the end, The Emperor’s New Clothes does come with recommendations (one of which at least, Brand acknowledges, would be to the detriment of himself). That’s the point that may divide people the most: even those sympathetic to the banking community are likely to find merit in some of what the film has to say, yet we’d wager they’ll be running in the opposite direction come the last few minutes.
Also, it can’t just be us intrigued to read the Daily Mail review of this one. At one stage in the film, as Brand tries to illustrate the problem of people who keep their wealth in tax havens, he doorsteps the not-small abode of the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere. It’s less dramatic on screen than it sounds written down, sadly, but we suspect a Ben Wheatley film has a better chance of getting more than a single star off the Mail than The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The paradox of The Emperor’s New Clothes, though, is ultimately centred around Brand. The veracity of his argument is undeniable, and he’s utterly at ease putting it across on screen. Whilst I can’t say I warmed to every single tactic he uses here – breaking down a class of children to demonstrate division of wealth felt a little odd – I was glued to the film as he made his case. But I can’t help but feel that those who warm to Brand and his political conversations will see the film, and those who don’t, won’t. Whereas for The Emperor’s New Clothes to achieve what’s presumably its desired impact, it needs to cross over.
Time will tell whether it manages it, but I suspect it may struggle in that regard. Either way, this is an arresting documentary that makes no bones about taking a position on the points it’s making. One way or another, it’ll provoke a genuine reaction. It certainly deserves to.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is in UK cinemas from April 24th. It’s also screening in cinemas around the UK tonight (April 21st), followed by a live streamed Russell Brand Q&A.
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