War Book: Thus ends the glory of Britain
by Thomas Humphrey
- Tom Harper’s political thriller makes for a riveting look at how Britain makes sense of its place on the global political stage today
The international premiere of Tom Harper's political thriller War Book opened this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, and it also got its Signals: Everyday Propaganda programme under way. This section pays close attention to the ways in which propaganda is mutating to control us, "in new, powerful yet subtle forms". In this respect, Harper's latest UK production set the bar high.
Not unlike Harper's The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death [+see also:
film profile], his latest has attracted a flock of exciting talent, including the in-vogue duo of rising star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and the ever-brilliant Adeel Akhtar. And when you see the film, it isn't hard to see why. The title refers to a series of meetings that members of the British civil service undertook during the Cold War (which were only made public as recently as 2009). In secret, they simulated what course Britain would take in the event of nuclear war.
So what Harper and scriptwriter Jack Thorne have done is stage what such a simulation would look like today. The fear that once existed between the US and the USSR is translocated to the hostilities between India and Pakistan (notably a political climate that the UK helped shape). Extremists within Pakistan launch nuclear attacks on India, and the film then plays out the widening black hole that would result.
"Play out" is indeed the right phrase, as the whole film takes place in camera, like a highly secretive piece of governmental theatre (set in the iconic Senate House - which once inspired George Orwell's description of the Ministry of Truth in 1984). But as several European directors – like Laurent Cantet with his Return to Ithaca [+see also:
interview: Laurent Cantet
film profile] – are proving, these theatrical films are immensely compelling if the dialogue is good. And Thorne's script definitely is.
The clear influence of the sensational British sitcom The Thick of It can be seen from the very start. War Book definitely has instances of Malcolm Tucker-esque, foul-mouthed power banter. Nevertheless, this style has also been pared back, allowing for some incredibly elegant shifts between middle-class wit and para-apocalyptic tragedy. The movie is also well balanced in its musings over the for-and-against in its hellish simulation.
Deep at the film's core, moreover, is a very serious point: at the turn of the last century, Britain still had the largest empire in history. And since then, the country has experienced a genuine struggle to reinterpret itself as something less than it once believed it was. Even now, Britain strives to see itself as elevated. And War Book excellently writes a handbook on these post-imperial hang-ups.
Hang-ups that have entangled Britain in war after war. But War Book also shows the extent to which people bring their own personal preferences and prejudices to matters of global importance. As such, the film makes for a terrifying and highly immersive glimpse into where nuclear weapons could lead the countries responsible for their development.