There are some issues that cannot be comfortably solved within a one hour documentary. They can be too complex, too close to the event’s timeline, for a retrospective look at the bigger picture. Toby Paton ‘s film Jo Cox: Death of an MP is a brutal, but necessary, bit of filmmaking, only made worse because it happened so recently in the public eye, one year ago.
Through shadowy talking head figures, Paton builds up to the events of June 16, 2016 and presents a vision of Jo — ambitious, altruistic, energetic — by her sister, colleagues and husband, and a damning one of her murderer, Thomas Mair, a loner and recluse who appeared to have no contact with the outside world. Cox was the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, an area of Yorkshire that was dealing with the worst of Brexit fallouts and Islamophobia. The film shows her dedication to the people, visiting sites of worship, local places of hospitality and engaging with a majority of those who didn’t agree with her views on the refugee crisis or the European Referendum.
The film connects the dots for the audience, tying together pieces so that viewers aren’t encouraged to think for themselves. Police officer reports are given, along with their own two cents: Mair had no friends due to his anxiety and had mental health problems. So, he couldn’t work.
However, do we always need reasons for our monsters? Do we try too hard to justify, explain away, humanise them? It is all too easily explained away here: isolation, depression, anxiety breeding grounds for a fascist murderer. “In times of extremism, people do extreme things,” Jo’s husband, Brendan Cox, retorts.
What is shocking is the time devoted to the one person that knew Tom, therefore adding a dimension to the black and white tale of good vs. bad. A woman named Karen worked with Tom at Electric Village, a place that gave him IT skills as well as some social contact, despite how little. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, reinforcing the feeling that you don’t really know the person you may work with, as well as the underlying message that more funding is needed to help those in our society with mental health problems, as well as the isolated.
Instead of a meditation on fascism, the film feels like a specific evaluation of “terrorism” — one act — despite its broader implications. Police officers whom interrogated Mair leave the audience with the bleakness of the fact that he still hasn’t said one word about his actions, rendering closure impossible.
Ultimately, Jo Cox: Death of an MP is a difficult film that resonates now more than ever with a minority Tory government, the knock-on effects of Brexit felt. Film can offer a hopeful view of the future, or of liberation from the past, but Paton ‘s doc ends on a particularly pessimistic note: that isolation and extremism can breed majorities of hate instead of community.
Katie Driscoll (@katie1435) is a film programmer in Brighton, UK. She’s passionate about feminism in horror films, documentaries and Jack Nicholson.