Tony Benn: Will and Testament

In his latest piece for Hollywood Hegemony, writer Adam Hofmeister reviews ‘Will and Testament’, Skip Kite’s “fitting tribute for a socialist hero”, and pays his own respects to the life and ideas of the late Tony Benn.

Gone, but not forgotten.

Gone, but not forgotten.

Director: Skip Kite
Original Score: Michael Duvoisin

“Hope is the fuel of human progress and fear is the prison in which you put yourself.”
– Tony Benn (1925-2014)

Tony Benn was an inspiration to me, as I’m pretty sure he was to everyone who wrote of him in the last months. He was the person who first began my interest in politics (late though it was) and generally awoke me to a world I saw the need to care about, a world which had been dulled by teenage nihilism and fear-mongering media.  So it fills me with joy that Will and Testament, far from being a sequence of academics singing Benn’s praises in a methodical post-death way, is a deeply emotional portrait from the man himself, and shows how his motto of “the personal is political” shaped both his amazing career and the lives of millions around the country. Incredibly powerful and beautifully filmed, it is a tribute worthy of the man, and also a beacon of hope to socialists past, present, and future.

Lest we forget, there was a time when media backlash against Benn was incredibly vicious. We are reminded of this with blown-up images of tabloid headlines, one of which calls him “twisted, treacherous, and evil.” In fact, Benn jokes about his transition from “most dangerous man in Britain” to “national treasure,” a label designed to make his political views seem quirky, rather than serious attacks on a capitalist system. Their slogans float eerily overhead, prompting a mixture of sadness, yet also of pride.

As such, we are not painted a picture of an out-of-touch dinosaur. We are shown how modern a figure Benn was, consistently painting a picture of socialism that confronts the right-wing policies that are destroying the work undertaken by post-war socialist thinking. If the memorabilia of past struggles are enunciated by one thing, it is not the dark future threatened by the set-piece of a giant dollar sign suspended over a pile of refuse, but the gentle humour of a mug with the slogan, “Make Tea, Not War.” Why destroy when you can create?

Importantly, we are shown how Benn’s belief in socialism never wavered, and that it is not he (that is, just one man) who brought about change, but the people who fought and worked together to protest nuclear weaponry, the closing of the mines in the 1980s, and the Iraq War. This crucial theme sticks Will and Testament yards above other biographies, in which history bends to the will of the “Great Man” and not the collective power of human solidarity. Instead, we are left to appreciate the power of Benn’s voice in left-wing politics as the climate changed to accommodate the moral legalisation of avarice, and how he encouraged others to take up the fight with him.

Whether the film is focusing its sights on the Conservative government of the 1980s or its current toxicity, it manages to show that a figure such as Benn is no harmless grandfather figure, but a powerful ally to those who would fight for a better future. And unlike the Conservative Government and its figureheads, Benn will be remembered well.

Refreshingly, there is little vitriol to be found in Benn’s words, or the filmmaker’s intentions. It would have been very easy to have a designated twenty minute block of jeering and an original song by Billy Bragg, but rather than capitalise on the cathartic feelings expressed after Margaret Thatcher’s death, it instead turns its eyes to those whose communities were devastated by her policies, and the strength they found to continue, leading to one of the most moving scenes in the film. The film never succumbs to derailing into “let’s just talk about Thatcher” territory, instead keeping it squarely focused on Benn and the lives that he influenced, so as best to respect his memory.

And whilst the scenes of the Miner’s Strike are harrowing, and the clips of Thatcher boil the blood, the most powerful moments in the film are when Benn speaks about his wife Caroline, who died in 2000. This glance into Benn’s private life feels neither invasive nor contrived, but instead shows how an equally brilliant woman helped to shape his life for the better and, in doing so, the film reiterates the power of people working together, both personally and politically.

Whether we are in the warm confines of his London flat, or looking out over the sea, we are privy to a great politician (now there’s an oxymoron) at his sharpest, his funniest, and his most principled. These interactions are punctuated by a beautiful score from Michael Duvoisin, which allows for the film to transcend traditional biography, and become an articulate tapestry of a political life.

The most important thing we can take away from Will and Testament is the strength that its depictions of hope and its condemnation of greed will instil in you. As I left the cinema, I realised how much power there was within every human being to do good, and to fight the economic and social injustices inflicted upon us every day. It is a rare film that can re-light the fires of righteous fury in an increasingly cynical and uncaring world. Even in death, Tony Benn has the power to inspire and encourage, and there was nothing he wanted more than to do that. And if that is not an incredible legacy, then we will never know what is.

  • Adam Hofmeister 05/10/14

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