Sex and desire in British films of the 2000s examines how film-makers in British cinema rose to the challenge of portraying a wide-ranging set of individual characters’ personal desires and intimate encounters, past and present, as the social, political and economic landscape changed during the twenty-first century. The book aims to demonstrate that key British films of this era succeeded in engaging with the themes of love, sex and desire in productive, imaginative and thought-provoking ways. The study includes chapters on the lives, loves and troubled relationships of Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Iris Murdoch, and an examination of the Bridget Jones film trilogy following her emotional journey from the ‘edge of reason’ to marriage and motherhood. The chapter entitled ‘The way we live now’ focuses on dramas centred on relationships taking place in modern times and settings, while the chapter ‘Sex and sensibility’ takes a close look at movies such as The Look of Love, 9 Songs and I Want Candy, which explore sexual desires in fascinating, unpredictable and controversial ways. An afterword considers how the 2011 film Perfect Sense brings to vivid life the differing ways in which a deadly virus can affect intimate and personal relationships between human beings. The book examines a series of complex and compelling films which explore how we may currently live out our hopes, fears and desires in relation to sexual matters and affairs of the heart.
This book explores the interactions of comedy and drama within a group of significant and influential films released during the decade of the 1990s. It examines a group of British films from this period which engage with economic and social issues in unusual and compelling ways. Brassed Off and The Full Monty are two films invoking very different cultural traditions as possible activities for unemployed males and troubled communities in modern British society. The book then discusses a number of contemporary British films focusing upon the experiences of British-Asian and African-Caribbean characters and their efforts to feel 'at home' in Western and British society. It features an extensive analysis of East is East, a comedy-drama about the cultural and ideological tensions surfacing between members of a British-Asian family living in Salford, circa 1971. Next, the book includes case studies of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. It investigates the ways in which humour is deployed for dramatic and emotional effect in the context of scenarios dealing with such seemingly non-comic subjects as mass unemployment, failed or uneasy relationships, bitter family disputes, or instances of racial tension and conflict in British society. The book demonstrates that the interaction of comic and dramatic modes of narration within the films discussed proved to be a dynamic creative mechanism in 1990s British cinema, facilitating and enabling the construction of innovative and genuinely exploratory narratives about characters who are striving to realise particular aspirations and hopes within a complex culture.
Relationships and intimacy in British films of the 2000s
The introduction reflects on what it might mean to say ‘I love you’ to someone and on how love, desire and sex are linked in important ways, but are also quite separate in particular situations (as will be explored in the films discussed in the book). The concept of the ‘unlikely couple’ is introduced, alongside a felt need by some cultural commentators for new kinds of narratives about romance, courtship rituals and long-term relationships in British film-making, an area in which some observers have claimed British cinema in the past has not excelled. The chapter proceeds to offer a detailed breakdown and summary of the various chapters in the book and their particular areas of concern. The introduction highlights important questions about the films’ treatments of love, desire and sexuality, which will be subjected to detailed analysis and consideration in subsequent chapters.
Writers in British society and tales of their private lives and personal affairs
Chapter 2 explores the cycle of British biographical pictures from the 2000s which examined the creative writing lives and personal relationships of a varied set of authors By focusing on three films centring on the extreme (but not necessarily exceptional) situations experienced by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) and Iris Murdoch (1919–1999), I will consider how these authors are depicted living a life in exile after imprisonment for homosexual offences; seeking to be creative while coping with a partner’s adulterous behaviour and facing losing their memory and powers of reason after being struck down by a terrible illness (Alzheimer’s disease). The films offer powerful portrayals of individuals seeking love, sexual fulfilment and success in their chosen careers over a period in British social history spanning the 1890s to the 1990s, while having to deal with situations which lead to despair, debilitation and eventually death.
Bridget Jones’s journey from the ‘edge of reason’ to marriage and motherhood
Chapter 3 focuses on Bridget Jones’s ongoing search for ‘Mr Right’ as examined in three films released between 2001 and 2016: Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Bridget Jones’s Baby. This series of romantic comedies reveal how Bridget tries to find a sense of direction and meaning in her romantic/sexual life and careers in publishing and television. Bridget has uneasy relationships with serious (but trustworthy) Mark Darcy, charming (but unreliable) Daniel Cleaver and sincere (but slightly underwhelming) Jack Quant. The films therefore explore from a woman’s point of view how complicated and sometimes farcical a woman’s search for a suitable and satisfying partner might turn out to be. The movies engage with important issues around selfhood, dating conventions and achieving sexual fulfilment and job satisfaction in the modern age. The varied narrative strategies deployed in the films also find ways of alluding to dictatorships, creativity and criticism in British culture, same sex relationships and international diplomacy from comic perspectives. The impressive international success of the trilogy demonstrates that British singleton Bridget’s (mis)adventures (as enacted, somewhat ironically, by American star Renée Zellweger) have made an emotional connection with audiences around the world, making them fascinating and worthy subjects for sustained critical analysis and exploration.
Chapter 4 primarily focuses on a number of British films from the 2000s which emphasised the life of the body rather than the mind, privileging the sexual over the cerebral and favouring explicitness over implicitness. These were films continuing some of the ‘low comedy’ traditions developed in the Carry On series and sexploitation films of the 1970s (which will be discussed in the opening section of the chapter). Films with titles such as Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Dogging – a Love Story were clearly meant to be provocative and controversial in certain ways, and the chapter will consider how they use comedic strategies to present characters’ sexual desires in a new and occasionally lurid light. Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love sought to investigate how Paul Raymond helped to bring about significant changes in the sexual culture of post-war Britain, particularly around the ‘male gaze’ of female nudity. 9 Songs aimed to continue that process by featuring a male and female actor having real sex on screen in a feature-length narrative aimed at general exhibition in cinemas. This latter film is compared and contrasted with On Chesil Beach, which details how a couple’s sexual inexperience and incompatibility leads to their separating for ever after their first night as husband and wife. The films in this chapter therefore offer a unique and stimulating look at sexual matters in a British cultural and cinematic context from distinctive and imaginative viewpoints.
Narratives exploring relationships in modern British society
Chapter 5 focuses on how film-makers working in British cinema during the 2000s sought to depict the social, emotional and sexual relationships of characters in a series of modern-day settings and dramatic situations. The chapter opens with a brief discussion of key examples of British films engaging with intimate relationships in British culture since the 1960s to create a basis for the examinations to follow. The chapter features detailed studies of films made by non-British directors exploring relationships in a British setting from something of an external perspective; films focusing on how sexual and loving relationships between various characters can meet with opposition from religious and secular communities. Notes on a Scandal (2006), a drama about a woman teacher’s damaging sexual behaviour outside the marital bedroom, is analysed for its powerful investigation of the consequences of the woman’s behaviour on her marriage, children, career and friendships. Noel Clarke’s ‘hood’ trilogy offers compelling and disturbing portraits of combustible relationships between young people in modern-day settings, providing a fascinating contrast with the very different films of another emerging auteur in British cinema, Joanna Hogg. The films analysed in this chapter explore the emotional and sensual connections between people and places, the perceived spiritual health of British society and its relationship with European and American cultures, and demonstrate the achievements of British cinema during a time of transition and uncertainty.
Taking its cue from a line in a W.H. Auden poem, this final section analyses Perfect Sense (2011), a film about a deadly and unseen virus which breaks up human relationships and the stability of society as a way of bringing the cinematic story of ‘how we live now’ up to date. The remainder of the chapter reflects on how the generic fluidity of the films discussed may reflect increasing conceptions of sexual identities as existing in a fluid state of being. The chapter concludes that some very important and significant studies of love, desire and sex have been produced and realised by the film-makers and actors whose work has been discussed and analysed in the book as a whole.
This chapter explores the genre of romantic comedy in relation to British cinema, with particular regard to the emergence of this particular generic form as a high-profile feature of British film production during the 1990s. It considers some of the key critical issues at stake when the romantic and comedic aspects of romantic comedies are filtered through a specifically 'British' aesthetic and cultural perspective. The chapter examines the two most influential films within this particular cycle of British films: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999). It concludes with a discussion of Love Actually, considering the film in terms of its status as a kind of 'ultimate' Richard Curtis/Hugh Grant British romantic comedy, and a film which explores male-female interactions within a London setting, and in the context of Britain's political and social relationships with Europe and America.