New Town Utopia documentary review: the future that never was

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New Town Utopia green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A lovely, melancholy documentary about the planned community of Basildon in England… but really about squandering of postwar optimism with the rise of neoliberalism.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Where did the future go? New Town Utopia, the lovely and melancholy documentary feature debut from Christopher Ian Smith, looks specifically at the development and the fate of Basildon, in Essex — just to the east of London — after World War II. But its story is applicable not only to the spate of other planned, experimental towns across the UK, but also to similar projects in the US, such as the Levittown suburbs. Its story is the squandering of postwar optimism and massive investment in democratic socialism with the rise of the cold profiteering of neoliberalism in the 1980s through to today, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The future was going to be so great!
The future was going to be so great!

“I both loathe it and love it,” one resident says of Basildon. And we can see why. Smith’s simple yet stunning photography — he served as his own cinematographer — creates a bittersweet portrait of a town in which the vision of the promise inherent in its dream just about peeks through, even today. Among the boxy housing projects that feel inorganic and unconducive to neighborliness, and depressing, brutalist concrete civic structures — “I hate that word: civic,” another resident gripes — is a hint of, at least, the desire to make a better world. Even if, we know now, it was a desire that was incohesive, didn’t take human nature into account, and contained no long-term provisions for maintaining the project.

All of this is seen through the eyes of Basildon’s artists: musicians, poets, painters, writers, even a puppeteer. The conformity of Basildon at its height, when men were expected to work in the factories and women in the homes, prompted a flurry of creativity among the oddballs; the band Depeche Mode was formed there in 1980, and the town is “like Graceland” to their fans. Even as these creators have had to fight the notion that “working-class artist” is an oxymoron, they’ve kept culture alive in the town, and nurtured what soul the place has. Perceptively, Smith curates a sense that artists are canaries in the coal mine of culture: they’re the first to rebel against — or to be crushed by — conformity, the first to warn against the sins of capitalism, the first to push back against civic decay and neglect. And they are not giving up on the town.

Basildon puppeteer Steve Waters with Old Man Stan, a vocal critic of the local governing council.
Basildon puppeteer Steve Waters with Old Man Stan, a vocal critic of the local governing council.

Over Smith’s visual lamentation of the state of Basildon today — abandoned retail; crumbling infrastructure — actor Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2) provides the voice of Lewis Silkin, a member of Parliament and the Minister of Town and Country Planning in the late 1940s. Silkin’s words about the glorious living towns like Basildon would offer to poor and rich alike ring as both stirring and foolhardy now. Yet there is wonder that anyone had once dared to proffer such words publicly at all. And there is the unspoken suggestion that, with the wisdom of hindsight about all that didn’t work here, we might try again, and make it work this time.

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