Reviews > Movies

Rule, Brittania

Movies | Film depictions of Brittania show it's still better to be civilized than to be barbarian

Issue: "Glamorizing Drugs," Nov. 9, 1996

Americans tend to be suckers for an English accent. Anglophiles will find something more in four films that run the gamut of the English empire.

The latest of the Jane Austen books translated to film, Emma, is coming to the video stores. Douglas McGrath directed this observant comedy, which, between its rich characterizations, intelligent dialogue, and sublime cinematography, approaches the zenith of Austen-mania. Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems doomed to suffer perpetual pride until she spies her reflection in the mirror of her cruel vanity. Few audiences can resist the girl as she struggles with her sin and in expressing her remorse becomes a woman.

The more questionable legacy of British colonialism is the backdrop for The Ghost and The Darkness, names applied to two man-eating lions that stalked and slaughtered more than 130 men as they laid railroad tracks across the African horizon of Britain's empire at the turn of the century. This is a re-creation of the true story of Col. John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer), whose dream of building a bridge across the Tsavo River turns into a nightmare as his bickering, multicultural workcrew is terrorized by lions.

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Professional hunter Charles Remington (played with savage eccentricity by Michael Douglas) is brought in to hunt them down, but even he senses in the animals an eerie presence of evil. Christians will question the talisman-waving superstition and the assumption that evil is some free-floating entity apart from human sin.

Moving forward about 20 years, writer/ director Neil Jordan takes audiences to another tragic corner of the British empire: Ireland in 1916. Opening with Dublin's Easter Rising and the firing-squad executions of those who led the struggle, audiences follow the intertwined lives of title character Michael Collins (passionately portrayed by Liam Neeson), Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), and Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), three founders of the Irish Republican Army.

The intrigue and violence of the IRA's guerrilla-style war against the Crown is presented in the style of a gangster film. But, far from glamorizing violence, Mr. Jordan reveals Michael Collins's heart for freedom and his anguish over the lives lost in the struggle to bring Britain to the negotiation table. As soon as a real opportunity for peace and self-rule is offered, Collins takes it. He is undone, however, by his former friends who remain addicted to terrorism.

Lovers of British humor will prize Cold Comfort Farm. This modestly budgeted but richly satirical comedy, based on the 1932 novel by Stella Gibbons, lampoons the depressing tales of rural primitivism by the likes of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence. The high-spirited young heiress, Flora Poste, lands into the loverly muck of an English country farm where she, not unlike Emma, purposes to create order out of chaos--thereby creating comedic chaos. Through it all, we learn that civilization really is better than barbarism, a bracing message for our relativistic age.

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