Film Comment – Denis Staunton Finds Nostalgia In England Through Spectre and The Lady In The Van

Denis Staunton, a columnist with The Irish Times, finds nostalgia at the heart of two recent films in his column on 20.11.2015. The latest James Bond film, Spectre, is set in a globalised England. The Alan Bennett bio-pic, The Lady in the Van, is set in Camden and Yorkshire, urban and rural bi-poles of England. Denis Staunton writes that the films take us deep into political values there.

If you want to drop a plumb line into the soul of England today, you could do worse than to watch the two biggest-grossing films in Britain last weekend – Spectre and The Lady in the Van.

He connects these films with forms of political nostalgia he observes in England.
. each is soaked through with an idea of England and English values under attack, a nostalgia which is shared on the political left as well as the right.
Denis Staunton situates Spectre  on the political right. The dramatic threat is from
a global conspiracy bringing government and business together in a sinister public-private partnership.
He cites a former Conservative Party MP and an MI5 director-general in support of his observation that
What is arresting about Spectre, beyond the killing, car chases and special effects, is the film’s melancholic, almost elegiac mood, as if the spirit that made Britain powerful, democratic, free and tolerant – in a word, great – is smouldering in the ruins of the MI6 building on the Thames.
That’s quite a list: powerful, democratic, free and tolerant – in a word, great. Denis Staunton offers them as descriptors of an England that the political right hanker for.
He puts The Lady in the Van on the nostalgic left of the political spectrum.
Bennett’s nostalgia is for the England that created the welfare state, nationalised the railways and introduced comprehensive education, all rolled back by Margaret Thatcher and her successors.
And he connects Bennett’s nostalgia with the current leader of The British Labour Party –
Corbyn himself also embodies a very English style of left-wing radicalism.
– without giving us a helpful list of adjectives.
Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett's The Lady in the Van -
Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van Source

It’s not clear which of the two films Denis Staunton likes. Or if he likes either one of them. He appears to be uncomfortable with nostalgia. What does he make of the nostalgia-fest Brooklyn, an emigration drama set in Ireland and New York? Is it the case that simple notions of left and right are not as readily deployed in Ireland and placing a film in that way is not straightforward?

The two films Denis Staunton writes about are not nostalgic. They are different treatments of the same political contest that rages through time, for all time. One of their core elements is ‘scale’. Is it to be ‘great’ or is it to be ‘human’? Another is given by the old Cicero line, cui bono? Who benefits? This is the political contest of the past, present and the future.
Would Cameron oversee the “successful implementation of a global surveillance system?”
Would Corbyn?
This is not nostalgia. Cameron is not bringing people backwards. Neither is Corbyn. They are both seeking to drive England, and the world, forward. The questions are ‘to where?’ and ‘how?’


You can read Denis Staunton’s article here.


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