2019 Film Essays

Attack the Headlines: How Joe Cornish’s Films Subvert Gloomy British News Stories

It’s hard to view The Kid Who Would Be King without jumping to an immediate assumption that Joe Cornish’s take on the Arthurian legend is a highly specific allegory for Brexit. Cornish himself hasn’t entirely refuted this in interviews, generally conceding that it’s hard to divorce the film from the societal context it’s being released into, but one can see why it would be reductive to view the film in this manner. After all, the film’s genesis dates back to the early 1980s, when a 12-year-old Cornish had an idea to update the King Arthur story, transplanting the world of John Boorman’s Excalibur to a British suburb that would be the transatlantic equivalent of Elliott’s family home in E.T.

The Kid Who Would Be King stays true to this original childlike idea, with Cornish’s screenplay — set in the present day — featuring only a small handful of references that would have felt alien when he originally conceived the story; a Harry Potter or Game of Thrones reference here, a gag about Mario Kart there. And yet, the family adventure movie feels like a deliberate political allegory whether the director intended it to be or not. The introductory recap of King Arthur’s legend is the first of numerous moments that underline how he united a nation divided in two, and there’s a radio news report a few minutes later about how “divided” the world has become due to the rise of authoritarianism and populist movements worldwide. Cornish even focuses on newspaper headlines, which highlight a fractured British parliament instantly recognisable to anybody who has been keeping up with the news for the last three years.

The film never specifies anything political by name. Given the screenplay’s surprising lack of contemporary pop culture references, this can largely be attributed to Cornish trying to obtain a timeless quality that will leave the story easy to grasp for future generations of viewers. The extent to whether the commentary on Britain’s divided nature of Brexit is intentional continues to be up for debate — and if viewed solely as a political commentary, the familiar childlike moral that working together is the only thing that will heal divisions isn’t particularly unique.

Instead, the reason any Brexit metaphor is to be found within Cornish’s sophomore directorial effort is intriguing because it continues a theme established by his directorial debut: the willingness to take depressing British headlines and transform them into works of Spielbergian escapism. Attack the Block, released in 2011, is set within a milieu familiar to anybody who had so much glanced at a tabloid newspaper during the late 2000s; an inner city neighbourhood in the midst of the knife crime epidemic. Headlines would often refer to a “Broken Britain” or a “Blade Britain” during this era, with attempts by centre ground politicians to ease the tensions often derided by a national media that leaned to the right. David Cameron, then leader of the Conservative opposition against Tony Blair’s Labour Government, was mercilessly mocked in the press for a speech where he demanded more compassionate policies to reduce youth crime, with the phrase “hug a hoodie” attributed to the future prime minister. It didn’t matter that he never uttered those words, as in the midst of what the tabloids were deeming an epidemic, such a ridiculous platitude stood in sharp contrast to what was being reported.

During this same era, Cornish was mugged by a gang of teenagers. In the wake of the shock, he had one simple thought: if aliens attacked the earth at that moment, he’d feel safer being protected by those same attackers than anybody else. He lived in an area of South London that was viewed as one of the least safe in the capital, and so he decided to make a film that would challenge preconceptions and stereotypes of these inner city areas, and of the young people who live there. More so than The Kid Who Would Be King, Attack the Block is a deliberate, direct response to a supposed national crisis that was mere hyperbole, but one that equally refrained from any overtly political commentary that would likely lead to a lack of longevity. The movie underwhelmed at the box office, and was viewed internationally as being divorced from any political context. Instead, it was seen as simply a John Carpenter-like monster movie, transplanted to an imposing working class tower block straight out of a J.G. Ballard novel.

Amongst British critics, however, Attack the Block was viewed almost entirely on political terms — not entirely dissimilar to how Cornish’s sophomore film is being received now. David Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” quote was a recurrent fixture in critical assessments, and Cornish’s proudest achievement should be making the ardently right wing Daily Mail (one of the biggest pot stirrers in hyperbolic reporting of knife crime) actively reconsider their initial apprehension to the admittedly ridiculous concept of hugging a hoodie. Their critic Chris Tookey even built his entire review around how this film finally made him understand a reality beneath a quote that was fictionalised to begin with. 

Attack the Block was also considered a welcome antidote to films that felt more exploitative on the same subject. Harry Brown (2009) and Eden Lake (2008) transformed the seething resentment of the media towards the working class, inner city youth into genre works specifically designed to play into the demonising of the young. Attack the Block works because it challenges those stereotypes, and understands the struggle of children born into low socio-economic means who fall into a life of criminality through no fault of their own. When boiled down to its simplest terms, it is an example of Cornish asking people to overcome divisions put in place by the media in order to start listening and empathising with people outside of your own bubble; the gang in Attack the Block have to start trusting trainee nurse Samantha (played by future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker), as much as she has to put her faith in people she automatically judged, and would have likely been fearful of even if they hadn’t taken her belongings.

Attack the Block is the more satisfying film because it is far more complicated in its exploration of finding common ground away from media generated division. The Kid Who Would Be King, on the other hand, is a film for children, initially conceived by the director when he was a child himself. Both films stress that only unity can help overcome adversity, but although both are of considerable merit, only one is able to highlight the complexities in a socio-political crisis that the media exaggerated for eye catching headlines. Of course, only one of these films was ever designed as a political commentary — and it’s the one that has largely been overlooked in this regard.

That Cornish has managed to make two films that can easily be viewed as thoughtful ruminations on the state of Britain in the centre of two national crises should be applauded. Neither of his films have connected with audiences, likely due to word of mouth that’s destined to refer to political situations people go to the cinema to escape from, and this is a shame. He has made two thoughtful films that offer joyous genre thrills, all the while reckoning with and attempting to heal the fresh wounds of a nation. 

Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.