The covert conservative politics of Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Empire recently labelled Kingsman: The Secret Service “007 cranked all the way up to 0011” and, like the film itself, this assessment hits it right on the nose. The film magnifies everything brilliant about classic James Bond films, but in the process, also amplifies some of their biggest flaws.
Kingsman’s greatest strength, and its greatest weakness, is its reverence for classic spy fiction. It’s a welcome revival of the sense of humour that James Bond forgot during his Bournification, but the film also digs up some problematic tropes that really should’ve remained buried. Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s adapted screenplay, like Mark Millar’s comic book source, is a constant battle between self-awareness and tone-deafness, and far too often it tries to have it both ways.
The film’s obsession with class is a perfect example of this. On its face, Kingsmanseems to be an indictment of the British class system. It follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’s recruited by Harry Hart, an impeccably well dressed and mannered spook (complete with Harry Palmerglasses and a John Steed umbrella) played by Colin Firth. Challenging the classist assumptions of Harry, and his boss Arthur (fitting played by Michael Caine, the original Harry Palmer), Eggsy proves that you don’t need to be Eton or Cambridge to be a gentleman spy. It’s a tale of a working class teen overcoming the odds.
If we take a closer look though, it’s not about the working class at all. It’s a success story about some posh-boys who’ve charitably taken a working class boy under their wing, and turned him into one of their own. Despite oikish protests, parkour sequences, and a Dizzee Rascal soundtrack that suggest otherwise, the film’s deeply conservative central thesis is that kids like Eggsy should aspire to be posh.
Admittedly, the film does treat the entitled Oxbridge ponces that our hero trains alongside with disdain, but this isn’t because of their excessive wealth, it’s because they don’t represent the wealthy well. They’re not gentleman, and they’re giving the old boy network a bad name.
Similarly, the film doesn’t sympathise with most of the downtrodden working class, it only sympathises with Eggsy, because he’s better than the rest. He’s been misclassed, and the secret service set out to elevate him. One particularly egregious sequence, where the film vilifies Texan red necks in order to justify their imminent, lengthy, leering and cinematic massacring, engages in the kind of ugly classism and lazy characterisation that new-atheism has become knownfor. There are so many troubling political ideas underscoring that sequence in particular, that they could easily warrant an entire essay by themselves.
Produced with the clear goal of maximising foreign sales, the film’s trailer is full of the same concocted bourgeois Britishness that made Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge so successful outside of the UK. A masterful deployment of the British class system, it encourages its audience to laugh at the ruling class, while also gawping at their opulence. It’s a marketing man’s dream.
With both a Millwall scarf and tailored suit hanging from the mirror in his bedroom, Eggsy blurs the line between us and them and, like Bond, encourages the audience to project themselves into his Oxford shoes. This consumerist agenda is encouraged further by product placement so rampant, that it might be even more obnoxious than Casino Royale.
As well as continuing Bond’s unhealthy obsession with class, Kingsman also promotes 007’s archaic representation of women. One of the film’s posters features Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, a lisping villain characterised by his race and unusual physical deformity (another antiquated Bond motif), between the legs of his assistant Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). The between-the-legs movie poster has a long, derivative, butt-filled history and, like many of the ideas in Kingsman, it really should’ve died off by now.
Cynical marketing aside though, the film itself treat its female characters (with one notable exception) as little more than damsels or prizes for Eggsy. Millar doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to this, as his recent comments about the rape scene in Kick Ass 2 demonstrate:
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know. I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”
Thankfully nobody is raped in Kingsman, but the film’s depiction of Eggsy’s mum, trapped in a cycle of domestic violence which, it turns out, only Eggsy can save her from, with yet more violence, isn’t much better.
And then there’s the film’s coda. A common motif in classic Bond films is the innuendo that comes, subtle as a brick, right at the end of the film (I think he’s attempting re-entry sir & I thought Christmas only comes once a year are particularly memorable examples). Yes they’re sexist, but they’re so ridiculous that it’s difficult to imagine anyone being particularly offended by them. The coda in Kingsman is different though.
It’s a close up of the arse of a princess, recently liberated after uncharacteristically promising Eggsy that she’ll “do anal” if he saves the world. It’s shot on a handheld camera from a grainy, point of view perspective, and it’s got all the aesthetic hallmarks of internet pornography. That the princess doesn’t know she’s being filmed, (secret spy glasses being what they are), muddies the scene even further. It’s gross, completely unnecessary, and a humourless dud in what is for the most part a very funny film.
I mentioned earlier that there’s one notable exception and, for what it’s worth, Grace (Sophie Cookson) is the film’s only well-rounded female character. Smart, competent, friendly and fiercely loyal, she’s Eggsy’s friend not his love interest, and she’s vital to the plot. One half decent female character doesn’t cut it in 2015 though, especially when she’s surrounded by so many victimised and sexualised ones.
I’ve been extremely critical of Kingsman up to this point, because I think it’s a film worth dissecting. It says a lot about how class, sexism and nationalism function unseen in our society, and about the widely celebrated cultural roots of these prejudices. All of that said, I still think there’s a lot of worth in Kingsman. It’s entertaining, hilarious, and while it too often retreats into conservative territory, its black humour and bleak nihilism do occasionally strike blows for the under-privileged.
Matthew Vaughn’s and his collaborators clearly love classic Bond, and their contagious enthusiasm results in a staggeringly enjoyable film, albeit one that’s often tripped up by outmoded prejudices. Kingsman: The Secret Service is classic Bond for a new generation, but like the films that inspired it, its politics don’t endure a moment’s scrutiny.
This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine.