Louise Gold reviews Last Rights, Channel Four
Set in urban London, and the closed rooms of 10 Downing Street, Last Rights is a film that brings the seriousness of political corruption to street-level Britain. It depicts how an average inner city teenager catches a glimpse of the cynical, arrogant and dangerous plans law-makers could make if we let them; the reality behind all the personable speech-making and hand-shaking of the Government. The point is to show how the teenager, Max, can make a far greater impact on the system than he thinks, the system that has him down as apathetic and easily subordinated.
When the new Prime Minister (Charles Dance) achieves power in the fictitious yet strangely familiar storyline, written by Clive Bradley, he denounces any worries about the lack of opposition to his Democratic Consensus Party, explaining that “it’s not about opposition, it’s about government”.
The notion of a “democratic consensus” effectively dismisses any real conflict in society and ignores the interests of huge swathes of society, all with enough smarm to suggest good intentions. Ringing bells anyone? “The Third Way”, “Forward not back”, “modernisation” etc. Clive does a nice job of fitting every slimy, scary and secretive thing about New Labour into this “new” party, and into the PM’s character.
The film was aired on Channel Four as a three-part educational, focusing on the political concept of citizenship. That concept has had a kicking in recent years. The neo-liberal agenda adopted by Thatcher and consolidated by Blair, aims to make us more apathetic consumers than active citizens.
In the film, the ease at which the government passes legislation, that in the PM’s words, gives “the British people what we want”, demonstrates Rousseau’s dictum that we are “slaves” until momentarily freed at each general election. The restrictive laws that are “attacking civil liberties” in the film (and right now) show us the harm not getting involved can do.
The only political opposition to the government left in 2009, the year when the film is set, appears in the form of organised collectives, represented here by a motley crew of internet geeks and hippies. But what really shakes things up is the well cast (and frankly well fit) Max (Ashley Walters, aka Asher D from So Solid Crew, and star of Bullet Boy).
As our chief protagonist we cannot help but like Max. Max is a black teenage boy from a patriarchal single parent family and his character tackles stereotypes head on. Single parent families are usually matriarchal, and Max isn’t the ghetto rude boy viewers might have expected him to be. Max exceeds our expectations and has a sense of humour too. Although seemingly disengaged from what’s happening politically, he becomes entangled in it anyway because of an overriding loyalty to his friend Tariq.
Tariq, put to work thieving by the brutal Steve, steals David Spears’s (Philip Glenister) laptop in the opening scenes. Spears is the PM’s right hand man, and this turn of events gets the boys embroiled in brutality at the hands of the governments “special unit” or “secret police”. The importance of these characters, not only to the plot but also to making it relevant to a young, impressionable and sometimes apolitical audience, is of the utmost importance.
Enter the PM’s daughter, Melissa Wheeler (Keira Malik), whose affair with Spears goes unnoticed by her father. The PM refers to her as his “first lady”, an Americanism that suggests the centralising of power into the PM’s hands.
She in turn fails to notice her father’s alarming political plans. That is, until, whilst trying to get the laptop back, Melissa becomes involved in Max’s search for Tariq.
Both of their searches should end in the same place, but the story doesn’t end here as both find themselves striving for justice.
Meanwhile Spears holds Tariq without trial in a torture chamber reminiscent of Guantanamo. The scene demonstrates who’s dispensable, whilst emphasising who’s all powerful too.
When the story is wrapped up it the dialogue is a bit over the top: the PM says things like, “With any luck general elections will be a thing of the past,” and that turns him into a bit of a caricature villain. Despite the efforts of Melissa and Max to defeat their “baddy” however, the PM manages to bury the scandal revealed to the nation by his daughter.
He uses the “call me Tony” tactics of our very own PM, distracting the nation in order to establish the end of all opposition. Making it “about government”, about policy and not principle, and about power in the hands of a tiny, self-serving group, rather than in the hands of the people. He declares, “The debate is over”.