Sunday, July 21, 2013

The World's End

Early on in ‘The World’s End’, the fictitious town of Newton Haven – the kind of depressingly generic English small town that’s not quaint or rural enough to be a village, nor close enough to the urban sprawl to consider itself a district of a city – is identified as being famous for having the first roundabout in Britain. (For the benefit of my non-UK based readers, that’s roundabout as in intersection, not the children’s ride.) It’s a curious thing about English towns that they clamour to boast about obscure or half-forgotten claims to fame, from the almost-interesting (West Auckland, County Durham: home of the first World Cup) to the blandly culinary (Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire: home of the pork pie) to the nobody-really-cares (Romford, Essex: home to the most lottery winners per capita in the UK).

Any English cinema-goer, on a single viewing, could probably name several dozen towns that Newton Haven reminds them of. And probably several hundred pubs evoked by the various watering-holes the five protagonists visit over the course of an increasingly bizarre, violent and hilariously fraught afternoon and evening. Because that’s another thing about being English: we love our pubs. For all that they’re becoming increasingly subsumed by chains (“Starbucking” is how Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s script puts it), or that the old-school spit ‘n’ sawdust working men’s pubs are as generic as the aforementioned chain establishments (a neat visual joke has the quintet blow the first joint as boring and roll up at the second declaring “this is more like it” only for a pull-back to reveal the interiors as identical), the English pub remains a nexus of social activity (good and bad), a retreat (a la the Winchester in ‘Shaun of the Dead’), and a place for youth to conduct an essential rite of passage whereby it pisses against the wall of manhood.

Two things you may have noticed about the above paragraphs: the use of “English”, not “British”; repeated references to masculinity. Because ‘The World’s End’ has two over-arching thematic concerns: what it means to be English; and how men interact/define themselves/fail to leave their youth or their past behind. In other words, take L.P. Hartley’s observation that “the past is a foreign country” and tip it on its head so that it’s the here and now that seems distinctly fucked up, add a couple of shots of Peckinpah’s rigorous and unflinching dissertations on masculinity, throw in some acerbic satire of the Monty Python variety, blend with ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and ‘They Live’, and serve with a government health warning.

‘The World’s End’ is perhaps the most ruthless and unflinching satirical statement on the nature of Englishness that I’ve ever seen in mainstream cinema, and not just for the reasons mentioned above. The film’s coda – which it would be remiss to discuss just days after the film opened – serves up a commentary on the insular, belligerent, inherently racist, island-race mindset that has characterised the land of my birth throughout its classist, bloody and empirical history. It’s the heaviest-hitting piece of film-making Wright or Pegg have put their name to and it all but kills the laughs (albeit many of them uneasy) of the film’s earlier stretches.

You’ll already know the plot from the trailers: sad bastard Gary (Pegg), forty-something and still acting like the twat he was at eighteen (only at eighteen his mates mistook twathood for cool), convinces said mates – corporate lawyer Andrew (Nick Frost), civil engineer Steven (Paddy Consodine), upmarket car salesman Peter (Eddie Marsan) and estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman) – to return to Newton Haven with him and complete the epic pub crawl they attempted at eighteen but never finished due to being eighteen and getting shitfaced very quickly. Gary refers to it, ad nauseum, as the best night of his life, but as the film progresses it becomes evident that not completing it has come to define his life inasmuch as it’s a personal failure he’s been unable to move on from.

Two decades and attendance at AA meetings notwithstanding, Gary is exactly the same person he was in his late teens. He dresses the same, talks the same, drives the same car. Everyone else has grown, matured(ish), changed. The first third or so of ‘The World’s End’ mines this dynamic for its humour. Pegg is unafraid to play Gary as essentially unlikeable. Few of his pals, for all that adulthood and responsibility have scrawled their signature, are that likeable either. Perhaps only Andrew and Steven emerge with any real decency. Regarding the latter, Nick Frost turns in the finest acting performance of his career, a nuanced and complex characterisation that allows Andrew to vacillate between poignantly sympathetic and fuckin’ badass when he cuts loose with two barstools and some bone-crunching WWF moves in one of the many hysterically staged and edited fight scenes.

And you’ll already know that things take an abrupt swerve into sci-fi territory. As the pub crawl – nicknamed the Golden Mile and encompassing twelve pubs (The First Post, The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, The Cross Hands, The Good Companions, The Trusty Servant, The Mermaid, The Beehive, The King’s Head, The Hole in the Wall and The World’s End: there’s a play on each of the names and they all work on different levels, from the poundingly obvious to the sneakily subtle) – progresses, Gary and co. find themselves under threat from an otherworldly collective called The Network, and being too under the influence to drive and thereby make their escape, they’re forced to see the Golden Mile through to the bitter (or lager) end. En route, Gary and Andrew’s fractious friendship is further tested, and Gary and Steven’s teenage rivalry for the affections of Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) is revisited.

Wright and Frost begun their loosely connected “Cornetto trilogy” with the horror comedy ‘Shaun of the Dead’, which grew out of the twenty-something characters and situations of their London-based sitcom ‘Spaced’; ‘Hot Fuzz’ moved the focus to small town life and embraced the buddy movie/action thriller as its genre touchstone. ‘The World’s End’ takes the stoner/loser/smartarse protagonist of ‘Spaced’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’, strips him of his loveability, transplants him slap into the heart of – and completely at odds with – the provincial outsider-unfriendly mindset of small town life pace ‘Hot Fuzz’, and ups the ante to cosmological stakes. How high? Imagine Iain M. Banks’s the Culture (and I rather think Wright and Frost had this in mind: there’s a very specific nod to Banks’s work in ‘Hot Fuzz’) squaring off against ‘Withnail and I’.

‘The World’s End’ will probably prove divisive. It kicks out ideas at such a rate of knots that audiences may come away bamboozled (I’ll openly admit that I was hesitant writing this review on just one viewing), and its final sequence goes into some pretty cynical (if still funny) territory. Its achievement, though, is an almost perfect synthesis of its predecessors while existing (and belligerently raising two fists to the universe) on its own terms.


Rob Niven said...

Considering the insular tendencies of the English culture that you mention here certainly casts the conversation with the Network in a new light.

It's interesting to consider that their resistance to assimilation comes not only from their personal indvidualistic tendencies but also from a cultural bias that has encouraged them to remain insular throughout their whole lives.

It also makes the ending darker and a lot more cynical. Very interesting perspective, I'm glad you referred me to this. I'll certainly keep it in mind during the near infinite rewatches that are bound to occur.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hi, Rob. Thanks for commenting. The biting cynicism of the coda really hit home for me on first viewing - but then I was born in England and haven't got round to emigrating yet! Like you, I'm looking forward to umpteen rewatchings of the film - as Tim said in his review, there's material enough for a thesis just on the names of the pubs and how they shape or provide a commentary on the narrative.

There's a belligerence to Gary King's debate with The Network at the end that, for me, isn't too far from Albert Finney's "don't let the bastards grind you down" swagger in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' - another slice of English anti-authoritarianism that also shares with 'The World's End' an immersion in drinking culture.

D.W. said...

So glad for the link to this blog (from another review's comments), yet one more way I have found the World's End to have done more than the average film's work to improve my appreciation of the medium. I have just this week past taken the film in for the second time (1st was an epic - no cliché intended - Corbetto trilogy screening the day before the new film's official Canadian release). Both times I have found my mind becalmed and yet newly troubled at the relevence of the many ideas it plays to their terrible last notes. And both times, a good pint really helped. The oddness is that even as a Scots-Irish Canadian, I recognize so much of the Englishness on exhibit that I'm renewing the awful feeling of both the Island-mentality and as a colonial by-product. The Network speak English but it might as well be Latin, yet I also appreciate the idea of promoting civilization - or optimal sentience (as in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001). The history of our world as it is and the film's narrative convictions converge in a collision as mighty as anything Wright has directed to date. After watching the World's End, I feel more devastated and awake than the captain of the Titanic, yet a new respect for the iceberg remains. So glad to have a film speak so clearly on so many topics and levels, but not surprised it came from this team. Good things will surely follow, and I am sure to give them my money then with an amused and earnest gleam in my eye.

D.W. said...