New Town Utopia
Dictionaries define a utopia as “a place which is perfect”, “an idyllic society” which is “designed to be without flaw”, but which is also “imaginary” and “impossible to achieve”. This is the theme explored in Christopher Ian Smith’s New Town Utopia, a documentary about Basildon, Essex. Built in 1949 as part of a postwar regeneration project, Basildon was declared a “New Town Project” in a speech by MP Lewis Silken – voiced by Jim Broadbent. Smith’s new feature juxtaposes the idealised version of the town set out by the politician to the realities of life there.
Dramatic and inspirational, Broadbent’s reading of the oratory serves as the driving force behind the film’s narrative, its nostalgic recording style creating a segue through the piece’s varying themes. Throughout the work, we delve into many elements of the town’s character – from its brutalist architecture to its bad reputation and experience of political change. The actor’s characterful narration maintains the pace, connecting one subject to the next. This is an effective tool in unifying the episodic plot, although towards the end it begins to feel slightly repetitive.
The story is told as a series of photographic vignettes; images of the environment, the people and their homes combine to create a fascinating portrait of a town sketched out through the eyes of its creative community. It is testimony to Smith’s direction that what feels like a series of photographs – albeit beautifully shot – maintain the audience’s interest for the duration of the documentary. The British filmmaker’s sensitive approach oscillates between conveying the intimacy in a place and a desolate longing for wasted potential. Not shying away from the political, the feature shines a light on society’s disregard for the artistic community and the impact this has on those living within it. However, no solid conclusions on the success of the new town experiment are drawn; though Silken’s vision is undeniably unrealistic, the narrative explores both its positive and negative impact on the lives of Basildon’s inhabitants.
The culture and protagonists are interesting, but it is the documentarian’s capacity to spot beauty in the mundane that stands out throughout the film. His creative vision offers a new perspective on an environment we too often dismiss as unremarkable, yet he also avoids fetishising a working-class space. Like a sequence of captivating photographs, New Town Utopia is a sensitive portrayal of post-war Britain which leaves the viewer pondering the complex relationship between place and identity.
New Town Utopia is released in select cinemas on 4th May 2018.
Watch the trailer for New Town Utopia here: