Billionaire Richard Branson, concerned about climate change after NASA warned that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean had reached its lowest ever recorded level, recently tweeted: “It’s time for bold leadership and conservation in #Arctic.” Comedian Frankie Boyle deftly let some of the air out of Branson’s hot air balloon however when he tweeted back: “You own an airline, you mad cunt.”
There’s just something inherently odd, if not downright hypocritical, about someone so privileged, someone who owns their own airline, their own tropical island to fly to and even their own spaceship, lecturing you, yes you, about the effect your carbon footprint is having on the planet. Watching Michael Winterbottom’s new film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a collaboration with ex-junkie, ex-VJ, ex-comedian, ex-slut shaming radio host and leather-trousered, strutting Messiah complex Russell Brand that sets out to expose the financial inequality at the heart of today’s society, it’s hard not to feel a little cynical about a millionaire Hollywood hanger-on and former husband of pop princess Katy Perry, lecturing you about financial inequities facing the poor in today’s society.
Not so much a documentary in the strictest sense – as with the work of Michael Moore, The Emperor’s New Clothes is more an unsubtle piece of polemic that takes a scattergun approach to throwing largely unsupported facts (doesn't make them any less true but like many activist films, a little evidence would be welcome) at the audience and, while it's persuasive in it's quieter more serious moments, demystifying & making accessible financial & socio-political concepts through it’s excellent mix of archive material and expert interviews, the film relies heavily on Brand's Marmite persona.
And Winterbottom gives Brand plenty of room to show off, bouncing around like a spiv Tigger on a gap year, waxing loquacious as he pulls safely outrageous, camera-friendly stunts like door-stepping the London residence of the supposedly non-domicile proprietor of the Daily Mail, rocking up unannounced to Lloyds Bank HQ and demanding a sit-down with the Chairman or driving round the streets of the Square Mile in a mobile billboard calling for bankers to face the music.
Far more effective are the moments where Brand stops pontificating, sets aside his New Age, anarcho-hippy Messiah schtick and actually listens to people at the sharp end of Dishface Cameron’s Big Society; the single mum legal secretary working all hours to scrape by as she raises two daughters, the practically utopian reminisces of a group of Cadbury’s workers and the impact the loss of the Independent Living Fund will have on the day-to-day life of a disability activist.
Ultimately however, as good as the film is, it's preaching to the converted. We already know that the world is not-so-secretly run by a cabal of the power-hungry privileged, that austerity hasn’t and isn’t working, that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that rampant, unchecked, neo-libertarian capitalism has created a society of haves and haven’t-got-a-f**king-hopes, and, while the film encapsulates and articulates the frustration and impotent rage many of us feel in the face of institutionalised iniquity and a self-serving political class backed by a puppet media, the film’s targets - the near mythical 1% in their gleaming ivory (well, glass at any rate) towers - are the very audience who will never see this film.
Perhaps The Emperor’s New Clothes’ greatest achievement then is (in spite of Brand’s frankly loopy and dangerous anti-voting pose) it should make even the most disgruntled, apathetic voter angry enough to get off their arse and cast their ballot on May 7.