Review: The Emperor’s New Clothes

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DIR/WRI: Michael Winterbottom • PRO: Melissa Parmenter, Michael Winterbottom • DOP: James Clarke • ED: Marc Richardson • CAST: Russell Brand

Named after Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a kingdom full of people too embarrassed to admit that their emperor’s apparently magical new suit doesn’t actually exist, The Emperor’s New Clothes is Michael Winterbottom’s new documentary following Russell Brand as he tries to expose some of the corruption growing in society and to confront those responsible. Russell Brand, for anyone unfamiliar with him, is a TV host, turned actor, who has become something of an activist in recent years, speaking out against inequality and corruption on his web series, The Trews.

Everything you’re going to hear in this film, you already know.” At the beginning of this film, Brand acknowledges two very important pieces of information, the first of which is that everything he has to say has already been well established. Brand gives several specific figures and details to illustrate the gaping inequality in wealth over the course of the film, but he is basically demonstrating what people have been clamouring for years; that the super rich all too often escape their basic responsibilities and that none of the people responsible for putting the world economy in the toilet are really being held accountable for it.

The second important thing which Brand mentions is that he is of course a part of the super wealthy 1% of society, a fact which has led to many people criticising his involvement in a film like this. This criticism is not overtly confronted, though Brand’s general insistence that the rich contribute their fair share to society makes it clear that he’s not condemning the wealthy, just apathy and greed.

The mission statement of Emperor’s New Clothes is not to remind people that the economy is under the control of the wealthy, but to shake people out of apathy and remind us that “Things can change”, a mantra which Brand echoes throughout the documentary.

To illustrate his feelings, Brand takes to his home town of Grays, Essex, which serves as an example of a typical town anywhere in England, or Northwest Europe for that matter. We’re treated to Brand’s narration regarding how things have changed in his hometown since his childhood and where exactly he thinks everything went wrong for his town and Western society. Brand also spends quite a lot of the film visiting and interacting with hardworking people who struggle to make ends meet or have been let down by the system. While this is a powerful tool, it is somewhat overused and starts to lose quite a lot of its impact. The same is true when we see him visit his childhood school where he educates the pupils about how wealth is distributed in society, and repeatedly asks them if the situation seems fair or not. An interesting device at first, it soon becomes less compelling than seeing Brand try to hold the attention of 100 young children who’ve been asked the same Yes or No question too many times.

Where the film really hits the mark is in Brand’s confrontational approach to the powers that be. Driving around with a megaphone, denouncing CEOs and calling out entire companies, he easily grabs the attention of passers-by but takes it a step further, marching into the lobbies of multinational banks, asking very nicely, if loudly, to please speak to the heads of the companies about a few discrepancies between the ways bosses and employees are paid for their time. He also questions the current system of taxation which has the CEOs of a business paying a lower rate of income tax than their window cleaners.

The message of this film is clear. Like the Emperor’s new clothes, everybody sees the problem, but we’ve all also accepted it. As Brand puts it, “We don’t worry about [inequality], we don’t even really think about it” and he rather gallantly steps into the place of the little boy who loudly exclaims that he can see the emperor’s willy, except that instead of simply mortifying his parents, he challenges people to make change happen, to build the world we want to live in.

The Emperor’s New Clothes flirts a little too much with Russell Brand’s need to see himself as a man of the people, but is, overall, an honest and challenging piece of cinema that shines a much needed light on the status quo.

Ronan Daly

12A (See IFCO for details)
101 minutes

The Emperor’s New Clothes is released 24th April 2015

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