Unlike the US, whose political process features separate elections for the legislative and executive branches, the British electoral process is defined by a first-past-the-post process that brings the majority party to power. We don’t vote for a leader. However, recent decades have seen a shift that has placed more emphasis on the personality of the Prime Minister. How much of a role cinema and popular culture – particularly the global reach of American culture – has played in this is open to debate, but there have been more than a few films whose focus is on the charisma, actions and moral authority of political leaders.
The films run the gamut, from biopic to satire, exposés to character assassinations. The former is dominated by Richard Attenborough’s reverential – and exhaustive – Gandhi (1982), which chronicles the Indian leader’s life from his early years as a lawyer in South Africa through to his peaceful movement that successfully ended British colonial rule in India and subsequent assassination following the country’s bloody partition. A major player in that story was the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was portrayed by Christopher Lee in Jamil Dehlavi’s 1998 biopic.
Oliver Stone has done more than most American directors to chronicle the country’s recent political and social history. (He has also produced compelling portraits of Fidel Castro in 2003’s Comandante and a number of South American leaders in 2009’s South of the Border, including Hugo Chavez, who received his own portrait in the far from unbiased Mi Amigo Hugo ) If JFK (1991) was more focused on the conspiracies surrounding the assassination of the 35th President of the United States, Nixon (1995) was a more straightforward portrait of the disgraced Republican leader (albeit more colourful than the version that appears in Ron Howard’s 2008 adaptation of Peter Morgan’s stage play Frost/Nixon), while W. (2008) was a lightly satirical take on the second Bush President, played with gusto by Josh Brolin.
One can see a fictional version of Bill Clinton in The American President (1995), while Primary Colors (1998) offered up a satirical, only lightly fictionalised version of the real-life episode between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and the circus that went on around it. A similar façade surrounds Abel Ferrara’s fine Welcome to New York (2014), which is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. Dave (1993) and The Contender (2000) feature likeable fictional presidents, as played by Kevin Kline and Jeff Bridges. But the reality is probably closer to Robert Redford’s deceptively ambitious future leader in Michael Ritchie’s excellent The Candidate (1972). As for Warren Beatty’s incumbent senator in his own Bullworth (1998), we can only dream of a politician that exudes such honesty about the world they work in.
Closer to home, British leaders have been represented with more nobility. While Britain was at war, The Prime Minister (1941) about Benjamin Disraeli – played by John Gielgud – and The Young Mr. Pitt (1942) presented politics as an admirable pursuit. The earlier The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) was actually made while its subject was still in power (and with his permission). In between, there was Old Mother Riley, M.P. (1939), which skewered political corruption albeit through the jokey character of Arthur Lucan’s popular drag act.
The Boulting Brothers’ Fame is the Spur (1945), a thinly veiled portrait of the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, was one of the most powerful political films of its era and one of the finest portrayals of a political leader before Michael Sheen took on Tony Blair in The Deal (2003), The Queen (2006) and The Special Relationship (2010). More recently, Meryl Streep donned prosthetics to produce a compelling, though divisive, portrait of Margaret Thatcher. However, that film’s satirical elements pale compared with Paolo Sorrentino’s corrosive Il Divo (2008, available on Curzon Home Cinema). It is based on the activities of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, stunningly portrayed by Sorrentino’s regular actor Toni Servillo. He is part-political animal, part-vampire, a monstrous creation whose morality has long been sacrificed at the altar of his own career. Not the sort of leader anyone wants.
Five Key Films
Il Divo – stream now
By Ian Haydn Smith
Discover themed collections – and stream the latest indie films the same day as they’re out in cinemas – on Curzon Home Cinema.