“Everything you’re going to hear about in this film, you already know.” So says Russell Brand at the start of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the excitable anti-banker agitprop documentary he has made with the director Michael Winterbottom. It’s a clever disclaimer. Brand immediately establishes that he hasn’t uncovered anything new about the Grand Canyon-like divide between rich and poor: he just wants to remind us that it’s okay to be angry about it. The problem for me, though, is that I’m a lot more ignorant about global financial shenanigans than Brand imagines. Like many people, I don’t know everything about off-shore tax havens and quantitative easing, and I was frustrated that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” didn’t enlighten me.
Framed by a white backdrop, and preaching to the viewer in close-up, Brand doesn’t present a single structured argument, as Michael Moore usually does. He and Winterbottom prefer a scattershot approach. They keep jumping from statistic to slogan to anecdote, interspersing their thoughts with flashing captions and very brief interview clips, and slotting in footage of Brand strutting around his Essex hometown, where various admirers and old mates remind us what a diamond geezer he is. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” undoubtedly gets across its message that the super-rich are horrible, and that they were allowed to become super-rich by Margaret Thatcher’s fondness for Milton Friedman. But as to how exactly Brand and Winterbottom think that happened, I’m no clearer now than I was before I saw the film.
It may have been a mistake for Brand to team up with Winterbottom. As the prolific director of “The Trip”, “24 Hour Party People”, “The Face of an Angel” and countless other films, Winterbottom is known for many things—principally, his astonishing work rate—but focused storytelling isn’t one of them. Certainly, he makes some odd editing choices in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. For instance, there is a long animated sequence explaining that independent high-street bookshops contribute more to local economies than Amazon. Fair enough, but it’s a concept that most of us could have grasped within a sentence or two. Meanwhile, Libor and the Savings and Loans Crisis are given passing mentions, as if they don’t require any explanation at all. Then there are the time-wasting scenes of Brand attempting to interview various bank bosses, but failing to get past the lobbies of their London HQs. Chris Morris, the subversive mind behind “Four Lions” and “Brass Eye”, once dismissed another political comedian, Mark Thomas, as someone who “bullies receptionists”. While that may have been unfair on Thomas, there’s no shortage of receptionist-bullying here.
Still, even if you don’t leave the cinema with an in-depth knowledge of how and why the economy functions as it does, what is clear is Brand’s energetic commitment to his radical cause—and that’s heartening, considering he could just as easily be slouching from one Hollywood comedy to the next. He and Winterbottom have decided that if they fling enough revolutionary ideas at us, then some of them are bound to stick—and they do. The case studies are particularly affecting: the cleaner who works in a bank but earns 1/300th of its CEO’s salary; the teenage girl who says that she’d love to go to university but has been scared off by tuition fees.
Brand’s frequent rallying cry hits home, too: “It doesn’t have to be like this.” There are a number of clips of George Osborne saying, “We’re all in this together,” and one quirk of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is how specifically anti-Tory it is. When Brand guest-edited the New Statesman in October 2013, he caused a stir by declaring, “I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either.” His line is that real change must come via collective protest, rather than Westminster. It’s striking, then, that the film lays the blame for Britain’s social ills repeatedly at the door of the Conservatives. No other party is condemned. Despite Brand’s contention that voting is pointless, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” could well encourage his fans to do one thing—and that’s vote.
The Emperor’s New Clothes out now in Britain