the nan movie — josie rourke — brett goldstein
Credit: Screen Media Films
by Ben Flanagan Featured Film Horizon Line

The Nan Movie — Josie Rourke

July 22, 2022

The Nan Movie aspires to recreate old sensations, but spills out as a shadow of its former self.

Whither, the British comedy? Once, this land was the province of the sophist comedy stylists: Tony Hancock, Monty Python, Dudley Moore; purveyors of tricky wordplay and jocular class-conscious scenarios. Comedy has suffered from the same affliction as most other British industries: overindulgence in the pleasures of the past. As a new study outlined this week, the film industry here is at a unique financial and creative low point in its extravagant history. It needs a shot in the arm. Enter Nan.

The Catherine Tate Show was, between 2004 and 2007, an extremely popular BBC sketch series. Driven by catchphrases and broad stereotypes, Tate preyed on the cultural hysteria of the Tony Blair-lead New Labour era: poor people are a drain on the state; brown people are plotting against you; gay people are hiding in plain sight; don’t get us started on the disabled. The breakout character of this series was Nan, a decrepit, foul-mouthed cockney woman played by Tate in old-face, whose outbursts against modern society made her the id of middle-class Britain. Nan’s tell-it-like-it-is approach to, say, being caught up in council bureaucracy was performed with such gusto as to convince audiences that she was on their side, a genuine underdog fighting the nanny-state through several hours worth of make-up.

A few Christmas special appearances aside, Nan has laid dormant for the last 15 years. In that time, the red tape has gone: through years of austerity followed by a messy divorce from Europe, Britain has become a flagrant kleptocracy. Why revive the Nan character into the contemporary cultural space, you might ask? Josie Rourke, ex-artistic director of the renowned Donmar Warehouse won’t give you an answer, as she had her director credit removed. But as we live in a oligarchy, then the raison d’être of a new Nan is easy to find.

Written by Tate alongside Ted Lasso helmer (and possible CGI replicant) Brett Goldstein, The Nan Movie opens in an inter-war hospital as Nan is born. The period detail is striking — because its good. One could believe that Terence Davies’ Siegfried Sassoon might walk into frame. Cutting hard into the present day, Nan’s own benediction comes via swirling Steadicam shots that follow her around an east-end market terrorizing her neighbors. This is classic Nan material, her confusion at accents and different cuisines is given visual emphasis when she purchases a statue of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, thinking it’s newsreader Trevor McDonald.

The foil for these comic japes is usually Nan’s grandson, Jamie (Matthew Horne, who walks through the chaos with all the enthusiasm of a once-famous man whose comedy partner split to become James Corden). He nominally looks after Nan, because she will need a chauffeur. After all, cinematic outings of comedy characters usually take the form of a holiday road trip, from Holiday On The Busses (1973) to The Inbetweeners Movie (both installments, 2011 and 2014) to the regrettably underrated The Bad Education Movie (2015). The Nan Movie follows suit, as our anti-heroine receives a summoning letter from her estranged sister Nell (Katherine Parkinson). A bitter Nan refuses the call, until an effort to avoid a dinner party at her sex-pest neighbors’ sees her set off on a road trip in Jamie’s bee-themed van (he’s a cartoonist, goes the logic). First, they hit Liverpool, where  they find their nemesis: Officer Mahler (Niky Wardley), the social worker that Nan terrorized throughout the series, who holds a grudge and will stalk Nan throughout the runtime, a Scouse Travis Bickle.

The experience of encountering the early stretch of the film is a hauntological dream. Catchphrases like “What a load of old shit,” and “Fuck off” have subsisted in the nation’s cultural lexis, uttered everywhere, in the voice by speakers who forgot what they were quoting. Hearing them anew, like Shakespearean quotes waiting to be revived, is discordant.

More surprising still are the occasional flashbacks which capture Nan’s youth. Coming of age via scrapes on a terraced street, the production design of these scenes holds legitimately as much verisimilitude as Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, suggesting that the only difference between the streaming dungeon and Oscar success is a marketing budget. It’s in these World War II-set scenes that the film’s heart can be found, as Nan and Nell find themselves in a love triangle for the affection of a young GI (Parker Sawyers, you might remember when he played a young Barack Obama in Southside With You). Sure, when they meet him, they ask if he knows Al Jolson, but instead of a throwaway gag, it’s a way to get the viewer closer to the characters. These 1940s scenes are clearly the film’s best: imaginative, well produced, and ambitious. There are frames within frames, and character arcs which make sense.

This is probably because the film was conceived as This Nan’s Life, a period piece of the Todd-Phillipsian variety that would show us how the wicked and cruel character of Nan came to be. Ted Lasso is one of the most evil programs ever made, and Goldstein travels through it with the expression of a holidaymaker taking a selfie at Chernobyl, but one at least get the sense that he has conviction in his sickly liberal life lessons. Watching The Nan Movie through than lens, it’s clear that, for better or worse, he and Rourke had a vision. And perhaps it’s out there, but whatever earnestness was filmed has been trimmed to ribbons in the final product. The climax of the flashback section is even scored with some angular guitar music; not quite Marie Antoinette (2006).

In the present day, her adventures get no more creative than “Nan accidentally swaps her angina pill for MDMA.” We’ve all been there. Narrative gaps presented by heavy reshoots are filled in with lazy ADR and extended animated sequences. The obligatory cameos get no more exciting than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it from Big Brother 2006 winner Pete Bennett. The animations — explained by Jamie’s profession — consist of horrific cut-out photographs that must be seen to be believed. They appear whenever the reshoots budget can’t stretch to a car chase or action sequence. This is the stuff that breaks the film.

It needn’t have been this way. Ignorance can be the perfect vehicle for comedy. It would be disingenuous to pretend that Nan’s insistence that her grandson is gay because he went to university isn’t funny. This, and her certainty that the neighbors are swingers because they “have organic fruit and veg delivered,” hint at an alienation in the British psyche: as language is modernized and culture has raced past the boomer generation, the likes of Nan — poor, lonely, isolated — are left searching for meaning in signs that they find in tabloid newspapers.

Nan could be a figure of punkish resistance, as Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa has proven. But in The Nan Movie, her gags are so engineered toward woke-baiting culture war dialogue — “Get a job” she yells at campers; there are the requisite jokes about pronouns that the very wealthy love to make — that the endeavor is robbed of any true spirit or emotional coherence. It’s rare to contemplate the director’s cut of such a broad comedy, but as the climax of the film steers directly into a sentimental and incongruous trans-acceptance storyline, one has to wonder about the film’s original intentions.

The Nan Movie is a film without a director, one that aspires to recreate old sensations but spills out as a shadow of its former self. It’s exhilarating to experience, and one can think of no more apt example of the British film industry in 2022. Through the many political calamities the British people have endured, the country is stuck in an infinite past, with Thatcherite conservatives and Blair-nostalgist Labour providing no ideas for dealing with our crumbling health service, climate change, and rapidly increasing poverty. All along, there was a feeling of being robbed; the feeling that another future was possible after all. She may be the ideal of what these establishment movements have reached toward, but throughout The Nan Movie, a parallel world can be glimpsed.