Essentially irresponsible: how Richard Curtis has made a career misrepresenting Britain

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In the history of British cinema, few filmmakers/screenwriters have delivered a portrait as seemingly quaint and idealised as Richard Curtis. Known and loved for his romantic comedies that depict Britain as a country of charm and wonder, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually, Curtis’ movies have drawn widespread acclaim, not only in his native Britain but across the world.

However, the kinds of stories that Curtis weaves and how he tells them are opposed to the reality of Britain as a country, a nation that goes far beyond the limits of West London and Hugh Grant’s persistently floppy hair. This sanitised and safe version of London is fiction, one that Curtis’ American fans expect to be reality and are thus disappointed when they find half an abandoned sausage roll set upon by horny foxes and a dirty old man gobbing on the floor outside Ladbroke Grove station.

However, Curtis is adamant about setting his romances in admittedly quintessentially British places – the bustling streets of Central London, the quaint little Home Counties towns and villages, the rural castles and estates, and so on. It’s clear to see that this kind of setting evokes a romantic view of Britain that seeps nostalgia for something that likely only existed in fiction in the first place, or at least in the lives of the British 1%.

The reality of Britain is – to paraphrase Bob Mortimer – in the dog-tod-laden streets of Sunderland, or the grimy back alleys of urban Birmingham or any other setting than fucking West London or a house by the sea in Cornwall. Believe it or not, Richard, those in lower socio-economic brackets fall in love, too, with just as much turbulence and romance as your foppish and plucky protagonists.

No one’s asking Curtis to be a Ken Loach and not certainly make the kind of film that Gary Oldman delivered with his directorial debut Nil by Mouth – lord knows we don’t need something that harrowing – but just that perhaps an acknowledgement of the truth of Britain, a country of incredible social, racial and educational diversity. Curtis’ Britain is dominated by white, straight, middle-class bookshop owners, actors and restauranteurs, with little time for brickies, sparkies and chippies. The director can occasionally touch on race and class, but it’s always dismissed as quickly as recognised.

Thankfully, Curtis had admitted to whitewashing his films of the 1990s and 2000s and said that he would likely make them differently if given the chance. “I think I would write different movies now,” he said. “Things do change, and that is what is exciting about a moment like this. We are all recalibrating; we are all thinking about things in different ways. We have a really impatient younger generation who’s focusing on things that I never focused on.”

OK, well, one must find forgiveness for those who genuinely seek it, so we’ll give Curtis that. However, there has been a dire consequence to his films in the sense that tourists seek out a Britain that does not exist. Countless arrive from the United States seeking a picture postcard-perfect London but discover the reality of the experience and perspective of those who did not slot into Curtis’ idealised narratives.

These kinds of films have undoubtedly retained their popularity and cemented the fictional cultural nostalgia they profligate. However, this era never really existed and never will (fingers crossed, lest we all keel over a die). Life in Britain is more than a cup of tea on a china plate and luxurious weddings in country estates. It’s not even two pints of lager and a packet of crisps anymore; instead, it’s wringing together enough cash for half a lager at Wetherspoons.

While Curtis has undoubtedly impacted British cinema, he made it through what is essentially irresponsible filmmaking. This directorial and writing style purports a fantasy version of Britain to those who don’t have to live in its oft-difficult realities. All experience love and laughter, but rarely all the time, and by eschewing the ugly truths of Britain, Curtis is defined by an oeuvre of falsehoods, a weave of lies that can never be undone, regardless of his retroactive statements.

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