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April 20, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia

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A spectre is haunting England – the spectre of Russell Brand. The comedian, radio and Big Brother’s Big Mouth host, recently turned activist, moves to the big screen after years of raising his voice against social and mediatic injustices from his Youtube channel. In The Emperor’s New Clothes we can recognise the same Russell Brand that almost made Jeremy Paxman cry. You won’t see him as the camp singing barman from Rock Of Ages (2012), or as the annoying playboy from Arthur (2011); he doesn’t play a part, he’s himself and wants to speak his mind.

Like in a Michael Moore film, with the director visiting Flint to contextualise his social background, Brand opens his documentary with Grays, his Essex hometown. In his juvenile years it was all fields, independent bookstores and kids playing hide-and-seek in the middle of the road; now there are only businesses and betting shops. Whose fault is it? Brand points his finger against capitalism, banks, and the so-called free market deregulation.

Behind the camera, seasoned director Michael Winterbottom (whose previous effort The Face of an Angel is still running in theatres) patiently follows, letting Brand’s physicality and witty extravagance fill the screen. The Emperor’s New Clothes is built like a one-man show with moments of quasi stand-up comedy, just enough political indignation, and a hint of bog-standard (class) conflict. The intention is clear: creating a documentary about financial inequality that engages even the most disillusioned, apolitical, ordinary man.

Unlike the old dusty BBC documentaries, The Emperor’s New Clothes is catchy and fast-paced. It introduces a range of issues (i.e. inequality, TTIP, inefficient economic policies), followed by Russell Brand’s arguments and reasoning. In a few occasions a commendable investigative approach is adopted, sometimes gags and slapstick take over; when we are less lucky, there’s just Brand lecturing the camera in front of a white screen. Most of the time, he doesn’t even delve into details; we are simply listening to his personal interpretation of what we just saw, often accompanied by cubital writings on the screen when obscure concepts like POOR or RICH need highlighting. Some documentaries might be biased, but still present facts, interviews, and different opinions; The Emperor’s New Clothes directly feeds dissent.

To give him credit, Brand appears genuinely interested, with very legitimate and largely sharable views. You might or might not like his harlequinesque figure, his clownish and irreverent approach, his chavvy but polished chat, but there is no way of denying the seriousness of his concerns. Creating awareness is the first step towards building informed opinions: asking questions in a curiosity-inducing fashion is The Emperor’s New Clothes’ most remarkable achievement. Brand should go one step further, though, and take a more well-informed and radical approach, rather than focusing only on apathetic invectives.

His attacks on banks and their role in the recent financial crisis are fierce and legitimate, but we are still missing the real whos and whys. Using his persona to dumb down the complexity of the context and create a binary world of good versus evil is Brand’s shortcut to achieving his goal. Researching political responsibilities doesn’t concern him too much: he knows it’s better to steer clear from making names (apart from Margaret Thatcher’s) and taking sides. That would mean making distinctions between culprits, complicating what he tried to oversimplify, and questioning his habit of offering easy solutions to difficult problems.

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So we know that “the bankers” did it, and they did it because “they’re greedy” and “capitalists only care about money”. The public is offered an enemy, trial and judgement; the only things left to do are craving punishment, and joining the generalised revolution against the enemies of the people. Everyone leaves the cinema frowning, wondering what to do next. Who knows? Hopefully Brand and Winterbottom are already filming the sequel, so they can let us know at what time the civil war is starting.

The Emperor’s New Clothes is screening on 21st April nationwide, with a Q&A with Russell Brand being streamed into cinemas across the country afterwards. Showtimes for the film can be found and booked here.

Audiences can tweet in questions to Russell by tweeting at @Emps_NewClothes and using the hashtag #thingscanchange

Davide Prevarin