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Country house dramas bore for Britain

In the psychological horror-comedy All My Friends Hate Me, plebby Pete is invited to celebrate his 31st birthday at an English country estate with his posh pals from “uni”. The film is full of cringe-making moments as Pete makes faux pas and his chums say things that may or may not be insults. It’s a set-up primed to probe the evergreen British obsession with social and status anxiety. But instead it’s Pete who is set up – by the filmmakers. Without giving too much away, the poshos are all right. It’s the pleb who is the problem.

Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, who co-wrote All My Friends Hate Me, met at Eton, which perhaps explains why they seem to be siding with the toffs. The failure of English house party films to tackle the class divide with anything sharper than a cucumber sandwich (with the crusts cut off) is perhaps not so surprising, given that British film industry folk are likely regular attendees at social gatherings similar to this, perhaps even striking deals with each other across the dinner table. Though I’m prepared to admit this is just my inner pleb being paranoid.

The ne plus ultra of the awful English house-party film is Peter’s Friends (1992), stuffed with Cambridge Footlights alumni and memorable chiefly for director-actor Kenneth Branagh’s excruciatingly inept drunk scene. Meanwhile, Richard Curtis’s dinner party world in Notting Hill et al ploughs a similar Oxbridge furrow, only occasionally infiltrated by uncouth peasants or punks, who are invariably played for laughs. Those hilarious proles, always saying or doing the non-U thing!

Don’t even get me started on Sally Potter’s The Party (2017), which serves up its wafer-thin stereotypes in black and white, as though monochrome will provide this brittle comedy of bourgeois manners with the dramatic heft it so conspicuously lacks. Even when the posh house party gets an apocalyptic twist, as in Silent Night (2021), there’s a palpable reluctance to move in for the kill. All human life might be ending on Boxing Day due to an approaching cloud of toxic gas, but Keira Knightley and her guests are such caricatures it’s hard to care whether they live or die, with the exception of child actor Roman Griffin Davis (son of writer-director Camille Griffin) who somehow manages to inject real emotional pain into the shallow sentimentality.

The most cutting films about posh Brits are made by outsiders

What these films have in common is a distinct whiff of “Party Quirk”, a feature of the 1990s TV impro show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, in which one of the comedians must deduce which character trait is incarnated by each of the others. Your average English country house party film, unfortunately, drags on long after we’ve guessed the quirk is Adulterer, or Terminally ill, or Junkie.

It’s hard not to conclude the most cutting films about posh Brits are made by outsiders. Blacklist refugee Joseph Losey clearly relishes twisting the knife in The Servant (1963), for example. And it’s telling that his fellow American auteur, Robert Altman, transforms Julian Fellowes’ Gosford Park (2001) screenplay into a piquant study of inter-class dynamics at a weekend shooting party, while Fellowes himself (Ampleforth, Cambridge, House of Lords), left to his own devices in the Downton Abbey TV show and movie spin-offs, sands all the sharp edges off a superficially similar scenario in favour of toothless escapism.

But the edges don’t have to be sanded off, as shown by two filmmakers from opposite sides of the British class divide. Joanna Hogg’s films are set in the privileged milieux from which she herself hails, but Archipelago and The Souvenir are dripping with the sort of discreetly barbed dinner table action that has you catching your breath as the implications sink in. On the other side of the spectrum, Ben Wheatley’s take on the English country house movie, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018), is about an extended family of non-toffs partying at a rented country mansion, whose cash-strapped aristocratic owner hovers on the sidelines while domestic reckonings play out with a nuance and verve that is positively Shakespearean – more literally than you might think, since Wheatley’s original inspiration was Coriolanus.

Otherwise, we must look to Europeans to put the boot into the nobs, from Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game (1939) to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), which ventures where your average Brit filmmaker fears to tread: into racism, incest, sexual abuse and suicide. But the seat at the head of the Cinematic Dinner Party Table has to be reserved for Spanish provocateur Luis Buñuel, who repeatedly rewrote the menu in films like Viridiana (beggars’ banquet à la Da Vinci’s Last Supper), The Phantom of Liberty (diners sitting on toilets instead of chairs), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (the bouffe repeatedly postponed by dreams, terrorism and a military junta) and – the ultimate nightmare posh nosh-up – The Exterminating Angel, in which the guests, finding themselves mysteriously unable to leave the dinner party, devolve into savagery, mob rule and sheep-based surrealism.

On second thoughts, the British version would almost certainly be worse. Imagine being trapped for ever with the party quirks of Peter’s Friends!

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist
and photographer

Arts & Culture

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Amanda Craig
    June 3, 2022 10:37 am

    Excellent piece.
    See also the dinner party scene in The Golden Rule. Unconscious privilege is always worth a bit of withering satire.

    Reply

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