The decade from 2001 to 2010 wasn’t an especially political period for British cinema. Yet echoes from the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and London’s 7/7 bombings, resonate through many British films of the past 10 years.
While movies such as “United 93,” “The Road to Guantanamo” and “Four Lions” addressed the subject directly from a distinctively British perspective, 9/11 left its mark in other unexpected places as well.
And perhaps a thesis will one day be written about Harry Potter’s war on terror, although the links drawn by J.K. Rowling between Voldemort’s Death-Eaters and real-world atrocities in her later books are more discreet in the film versions.
But fantasy films aside, Blighty’s filmmakers have approached the aftermath of 9/11 from many angles.
Take Richard Curtis. Even thought he’s an admirer of Ken Loach, Curtis isn’t the U.K.’s most obviously topical or political filmmaker. Yet he framed his 2003 romantic comedy “Love Actually” as an explicit response to the 9/11 attacks.
As friends, lovers and families are reunited at Heathrow airport, the British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, says in voiceover, “When the planes hit the twin towers, none of the phone calls from the people onboard were messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion, love actually is all around.”
Curtis also gave voice to the discomfort felt by the British liberal-left majority, which voted Tony Blair to power, about their leader’s decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amid all the romantic fantasies of “Love Actually,” perhaps the most unlikely moment of liberal wish-fulfillment comes when Grant finds the backbone to stand up publicly against Billy Bob Thornton’s slick and sleazy American president.
For the millions who took to the streets in 2003 to protest the Iraq War, this rejection of the abusive nature of the so-called “special relationship” was the closest they would come to having a leader who said what they thought.
Here are some other notable responses by British filmmakers to 9/11 and its aftermath, some direct, some more oblique:
‘In This World’ (2002)
Starting in a squalid refugee camp in Pakistan filled with people fleeing the Afghan war, Michael Winterbottom follows the journey of an Afghan boy smuggled across Europe to London, in an attempt to illuminate the human tragedy of illegal immigration. The film won the Golden Bear in Berlin and the foreign-language BAFTA.
‘United 93’ (2006)
Paul Greengrass and production shingle Working Title told the story of United Airlines flight 93 with spine-tingling intensity and dispassion, using docudrama skills honed in the trauma of Northern Ireland. Greengrass and his editors were rewarded with Oscar noms.
‘The Road to Guantanamo’ (2006)
Winterbottom again, with another docudrama, attempting to explain how three young British Muslims stumbled into the midst of the war in Afghanistan, got captured with Taliban forces and ended up in Guantanamo Bay. A Silver Bear winner in Berlin.
‘The Queen’ (2006)
Tony Blair was at the height of his popularity when he cajoled the royal family into a more visible display of grief over the death of Princess Diana. But by the time Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan depicted these events in “The Queen,” the Iraq war had toxified his brand. That hindsight adds a sharper edge to the movie when Queen Elizabeth slyly warns a heedless Blair of the perils of political hubris.
‘Man on Wire’ (2008)
A motley crew of foreigners plots an audacious coup against the World Trade Center. The unspoken echoes of 9/11 make James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tightrope walk between the twin towers in 1974 all the more poignant and exhilarating. Petit’s aerial performance emerges as an extraordinary creative gift, in contrast to the deadly nihilism of 9/11 terrorists.
‘In the Loop’ (2009)
With the U.S. and Britain trying to maneuver the United Nations into sanctioning a war in the Middle East, a bumbling British cabinet minister gets caught between Washington’s doves and hawks, while trying to avoid being eviscerated by his own government’s chief spin doctor. Director Armando Iannucci’s debut feels so plausible that it scarcely qualifies as satire.
‘Four Lions’ (2010)
TV provocateur Chris Morris won a BAFTA award for new director with this lethal farce about a hapless gang of British Muslim suicide bombers, whose stupidity and incompetence is matched only by that of the security forces. Yet the film is surprisingly sweet and moving in its depiction of the deadly delusions of the wannabe jihadis.
‘In Our Name’ (2010)
The experiences of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have not yet found much reflection on the bigscreen. By focusing on a female soldier and her relationship with her daughter, Brian Welsh’s film finds a new angle on the trope of the returning warrior struggling to re-adjust to civilian life.
‘Route Irish’ (2010)
Ken Loach has his say on postwar Iraq with this didactic thriller about a mercenary trying to uncover the truth about his friend’s death. Loach also contributed the British segment to “11’9’01 — September 11” which offered up responses to the twin towers attacks from directors from around the world. Loach drew parallels between 9/11 and the CIA-aided overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government on the same day in Chile 28 years earlier.
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