As I had mentioned in my previous review of Made In Britain (1982), Alan Clarke proved to be one of the most daring, innovative and honest filmmakers in our nation’s history. While Ken Loach & Mike Leigh (two other dearly regarded favourites) are to be commended for their respective talents for laying bare the realities of working-class British life and the true machinations of the system, I’ve always found that Clarke took it a step further. Made In Britain, Scum, Elephant, Rita, Sue & Bob Too and The Firm not only remove the fanciful trappings, they necessarily rub your nose in the darker, more toxic facets of society, the corruption, narcissism, fanaticism and maladaptation that fosters dysfunctional and antisocial behaviour. I’m glad that even now, 30 years after his passing, new audiences are still captivated and utterly shocked by his output.
Released in March 1974, Penda’s Fen is a standout entry in Clarke’s oeuvre, not merely because it’s an excellent piece of work, but because it’s so unlike the pictures that have defined his auteurship. Far from being mired in the gritty, bleak and utterly unforgiving atmospheres of his other films, Penda’s Fen offers a postmodern and ambiguously supernatural examination of politics, religion, identity, social mores and the various institutions and epochs that have shaped Great Britain’s nationhood and character.
Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is a teenager living in the village of Pinvin in rural Worcestershire. Raised in an upper-middle-class family as the son of the local vicar and attending an elite school, Stephen is a walking embodiment of right-wing values. A jingoistic military cadet and avid fan of composer Sir Edward Elgar, he is contemptuous of anything lowbrow and any lifestyle that isn’t conducive to the standards of the archetypical nuclear family. Priggish, authoritarian and generally unlikeable, Stephen openly displays his antipathy toward a local left-wing playwright who calls for nuclear disarmament at town meetings, considering him an unpatriotic, subversive degenerate who wants to annihilate traditional values and render the country a toothless, amoral wasteland. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mind more closed.
Fascinated by Manichaeism, a philosophy that sees the world and existence itself as a perpetual battlefield between the forces of good and evil, Stephen is resolutely convinced that he treads the righteous path and that it is his transcendent duty to fight for the ‘correct’ social institutions. As with all of the greatest Bildungsromans, Stephen comes to find that his very identity is conceived of secrets and falsehoods and that when probed, the foundations of his core beliefs are more than a little shakey. His bigotry against those who reside outside of a stereotypical heterosexual existence is challenged when he is forced to face his own burgeoning same-sex attractions, and his father, the aforementioned vicar, is far more agnostic and inclined to the deconstruction of dogma than Stephen could have possibly anticipated.
These profound awakenings are supplemented by Stephen’s apparitional encounters with angels, demons, the ghost of Sir Edward Elgar and the titular King Penda, the last pagan monarch of Britain. The speculative etymology of Pinvin is ‘Penda’s Fen’, and England’s pagan ancestry ultimately becomes emblematic of humanism, free-spiritedness, individualistic opposition to dogmatism and prejudice and reconnection with ideals lost to the pompous rigidity of modern-day conservative social order. By the end of this saga, Stephen’s personality, ideals and entire existential outlook will be irrevocably transformed.
A coming of age tale, psychological drama and folk horror all rolled into one, Penda’s Fen is very much a television film in terms of its look and feel, but far from being a detraction, it actually bolsters the viewing experience. The crisply shot Worcestershire countryside has an immersive power, framing Stephen’s psychospiritual crisis as a journey that is both ominous and intimate. His interactions with characters of a more sceptical bent than himself imbues him with the realisation that his ‘enemies’ care just as much about the future of the nation as he does, but contend that statism, military aggression, organised religion and anti-egalitarianism are harmful principles, born of psychological projection and a compulsion to dominate. With frightening, spellbinding imagery and poetic dialogue, it is more of an intellectual venture than Clarke’s other works, but definitely no less captivating. Among the more disturbing fantastical visions is that of ‘Mother & Father England’, an outwardly traditional middle-aged couple who Stephen spots on television and subsequently daydreams about as parental figures to himself and Great Britain as a whole, signifying the dark side of his Manichean struggle.
If you enjoy fantasy, history, the mystical utility of rural landscapes and food for thought, Penda’s Fen is an ambitious and inquisitive feat that succeeds in carving out a highly original take on a plethora of contentious and substantive issues. It is scary, bewildering, passionate and highly poignant, and delivers one of the most provocative and measured character transformations that I have ever seen. I would urge you to track down a copy this instant.