Your enjoyment of this documentary about the accountability of bankers pre- and post-credit crunch and the financial imbalance that currently exists across UK society will largely depend on a couple of obvious factors: first of all whether you are interested in the subject matter (which, really, you ought to be) and secondly whether or not you like Russell Brand, who simplifies the financial jargon for the audience here while honestly admitting that he doesn’t quite understand some of it himself (although his mispronunciation of ‘quantitatitive easing’ (sic) is completely artificial).
Brand has become a prominent campaigner for the fairer distribution of wealth (via increased levels of taxation on the rich and increased wages for lower earners) and other related issues during the past couple of years, and over here the BBC’s flagship news shows have brought him in for a number of risible interviews every time he has mentioned the word ‘revolution’, so he seems like a logical frontman for this film by Michael Winterbottom (though as a kind of pantomime lefty it must be said that he also lacks credibility, which is a shame, particularly as I find myself agreeing with plenty that he has to say). Obviously there’s something amusingly ironic about one of the more vocal campaginers on behalf of the 99% being – presumably – a fully-fledged member of the 1% himself, though Brand candidly admits that his own personal wealth and celebrity status is a cause for embarrasment, given his support of the common man and his outspoken nature. Still, he’s always an engaging, lively presence in front of the camera, and there’s some amusing footage here of the comic wandering around his Essex hometown of Grays, chatting to people on the street while subtly establishing the notion that he hasn’t lost touch with his roots.
Some of the stunts included in The Emperor’s New Clothes are daft and detract from the seriousness of the underlying message, though one or two are at least mildly entertaining: little is gained by watching Brand repeatedly illustrate the concept of fairness with the help of a classroom full of 6- and 7-year-olds, for example, but the reaction of the kids is sweetly amusing as they scream their answers to a series of simple, leading questions. Sadly there’s a distinctly sub-Michael Moore feel to the comedian’s rabble-rousing in the City of London (i.e. one of London’s two distinct financial districts), though, where his lecturing of bank security guards about the wrongdoings of their bosses – while he waits for interviews with said head honchos that will obviously never materialise – is cruel and uncomfortable. These men are presumably earning the National Minimum Wage, or hourly wages that are close to it, and often work long shifts without much thanks; is it really necessary for a millionaire to lecture them while they are at work about the shitty nature of their jobs or the companies that pay them, and for Michael Winterbottom to then put the footage out there for public consumption?
Despite a few awkward moments the general impression is that Brand has good intentions and that he cares about the situation and the people he talks to; thankfully he is (usually) conscious of his own faults and his status, too, and is up-front about such secondary issues. Presumably he feels no-one else in a similar position is saying anywhere near enough about the subject (no surprise seeing as most are beneficiaries of the situation) and thus he feels the need to step up to the plate, but thankfully he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that his primary role is to entertain; whether the primary role of a documentary about the recession and the widening gap between rich and poor should be to entertain in such a light, frothy manner is another matter entirely. The simplification of the subject matter and the choice of presenter are obviously attempts to attract those who wouldn’t normally engage with these issues, and as such the film serves as an easy introduction to left-wing financial politics, with an emphasis on the UK and – to a lesser extent – the US. There are some salient points made, but I’m not overly enthusiastic about the 21st Century trend of relying on a celebrity mouthpiece to deliver them; maybe there’s no way around it these days if you wish to secure funding for such a project.
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: Michael Winterbottom.
Starring: Russell Brand.
Cinematography: James Clarke.
Editing: Marc Richardson.
Running Time: 101 minutes.