Russell Brand has an infectious enthusiasm, and his charm and charisma are really quite irresistible. The fear with Brand is that there is little substance underneath. These fears are always allayed, as Brand is proven to be a man of character, intelligence and compassion. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a case of Brand’s unruly passions being channeled by director Michael Winterbottom, to focus on the inequality of wealth and income, and produce a really interesting film. When 80 odd people are earning, or controlling, the same amount of money as another 3.5 billion there is something gravely wrong.
Russell Brand hosts the documentary and works through the inequality of the distribution of wealth particularly in the UK but also in the US and globally. His beef is with the banking industry, seemingly self regulated in the UK and responsible for the financial crisis of 2008. Brand is pretty unhappy that the main offenders in the banking industry have gotten away without facing the courts, and mostly with very hefty pay rises instead.
Brand and Winterbottom use archival images, interviews and original footage to present their account. In an effort to highlight the inequity of the British legal justice system, Brand talks to a young man charged and imprisoned for his role in the London riots. Caught up in the frenzy, this young stole an item worth the equivalent of about $200. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison, serving nearly a year of that time. He was a dance teacher previously, now unemployed – and basically unemployable. Brand poses questions to the viewer as to why this young man is imprisoned, when bankers and others in the financial sector have served no time for crimes that have cost all of us. In fact, the offenders have pay rises which far outweigh their fines. Brand rightly asks, ‘what do fines matter to people who can print money?’.
It is easy to get passionate watching The Emperor’s New Clothes, in part because Brand is so commanding. He is articulate – but in his own fashion. Brand is funny and indignant, a tough balance but one he manages really well. Brand is also sympathetic to the people he interviews in the course of the film. Several single mums open up to him and the camera, sharing with him the struggle they face daily to provide for their kids and themselves. Brand is visibly moved, his heart seemingly a little bit broken along with theirs.
Winterbottom seems like a good pairing for Brand, as this is quite a convincing documentary. A film of this nature, with a personality as large as Brand’s at the helm, can lose itself to the spectacle. Brand could have been that spectacle, but Winterbottom keeps the film on track. There is a serious issue at the centre of this film, one which is global. Brand and Winterbottom keep that issue – and the people most affected by it – at the centre of their film.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is in Australian cinemas from 11 June through StudioCanal.