kingsman: the secret service
finlay glen picks apart the politics behind the film
In the opening scene of Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) and adapted from an original comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons (Kick-Ass, Wanted), we are thrown into the middle of a death-defying Kingsman mission to a generic Middle-Eastern desert warzone, where a very unreasonable foreign chap is about to blow himself up along with everyone else in the room. One of the members of the Kingsman secret service sacrifices his life by smothering the bomb, and Harry Hart (Colin Firth) gives a medal of honour to the man’s widow, saying that if she or her young son ever need help they should ring the number on the back of the medal. Seventeen years later and her son, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), a typical council estate chav, gets nicked by the police for some typical criminal behaviour, and is about to get locked up until he calls the number on the medal. Hart gets Eggsy released, fills him in on who his father was, and recruits him for Kingsman training, where Eggsy and his rival candidates must battle it out for a vacant spot in the spy agency. Alongside the Kingsman training, Eggsy is also coached by Hart in the art of being a true British gentleman.
Eggsy is trained up just in time to help take on Kingsman’s biggest challenge yet, which arrives in the form of the Silicon Valley technocapitalist plutocrat Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). Valentine’s villainous plan is to give away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet which, on his command, will issue a tone that causes people to become uncontrollably violent. Everyone will murder each other (other than a select group of rich and important people who are in on the plan), the land will be purged, humanity will be redeemed, and the issue of global warming overcome. Job done.
At first, I must admit, I thought it slightly odd that our arch-villain is a climate change activist, if a rather extreme and unorthodox one in his approach. Perhaps, I wondered generously, it serves as a reminder to the viewer that climate change really will push civilization towards crises and resolutions of Biblical proportions. However, this magnanimous interpretation somewhat flies in the face of the film’s plot. The suggested attitude to environmentalism on the narrative level, although hardly worth getting offended over, is basically reactionary, if potentially ironic. Environmental interventionism is blatantly aligned with the corrupt schemes of a global elite, a narrative you’re more likely to find in the columns of Breitbart than in the movie-scripts of Hollywood. In fact, Richmond Valentine’s entire project reads as if it might have been lifted from one of Donald Trump’s campaign ramblings.
Valentine and his cohorts represent the modernizing, post-national forces of globalized capitalism: a high-tech economy, multiculturalism, liberalism, Janus-faced politicians, and immense economic inequality. His sidekick Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) has futuristic prosthetic metal legs, carrying the marks of technological progress on her body; the uniform of the faceless army that defend Valentine’s headquarters is plain white (they belong to no past, no tradition, no culture); Valentine is a materialist who wears a new set of matching flat cap and tracksuits in every scene and eats McDonalds on a silver platter. The threat he poses is clearly far more insidious and pervasive than the self-detonating jihadi at the start of the film, because Valentine bears the seductive fruits of consumer capitalism.
One of Valentine’s key conspirators is the Swedish Prime Minister: an emblem of the spineless, amoral, establishment politician. He has long abandoned his role as statesman and representative of his people in service of the global elite, and is deliberately contrasted with the Swedish Crown Princess, who takes a moral stand against the conspiracy and is subsequently imprisoned by Valentine for the rest of the film. Royalty are symbols of national heritage, embodiments of sacred, cultural tradition. Valentine, the global capitalist entrepreneur, wants to lock them up. Seen in this light, the film dramatizes the essential narrative of reactionary populism: pitting a morally pure people rooted in a sacred past, against a corrupt, immoral elite who rule the present.
Our heroes, the Kingsmen, as suggested by their name, are defenders of national culture and traditional values. An independent secret service founded by aristocratic families after World War I and operated out of a Savile Row tailors, they are not beholden to the government, and thus not specifically in service of the British people. However, in the context of the film’s insinuation that there is deep corruption amongst the ruling elite, this is arguably a sign of even greater fidelity to national ideals. The Kingsmen represent a time when Britain really was British. Indeed, the film very self-consciously positions itself within the genre of the British heritage drama, which runs on cosy nationalist nostalgia.
Harry Hart – codename Galahad – sits in his office half way through the film surrounded by front pages of The Sun posted on the walls. They are the headlines, he says, from days on which Kingsman saved the world. British national history, the events collectively remembered as a nation, wouldn’t have been possible without the selfless work of Hart and his fellow servants to the crown. Spies, in the mythology of British nationalism, are like guardian angels, working in a hidden realm to protect the flock from the enemy outside.
The Kingsmen also represent a turn towards an older version of British masculinity, which the film presents as timeless: the self-sufficient, upper-class English gentleman. They model themselves on the Knights of the Round Table, placing their fraternity in the context of one of the foundation myths of the British people, and more specifically, the noble British gentleman. Hart and Eggsy, like Galahad and Lancelot before them, are noble in manner, elegant in conversation, and peerless in battle. Hart’s timeless mantra which he incants to a bunch of ungentlemanly oiks is the British gentleman’s abiding ethos, from Lancelot through to Bond: “Manners... maketh… man”. The film stages a contemporary version of the Arthurian armouring scene, where Eggsy is given his “modern gentleman’s armour”: shoes, pen, umbrella, cufflinks, bespoke suit. A token woman, Roxy, is added to the fraternity, which belies Kingsman’s conservative gender politics. She, I presume, isn’t eligible for gentleman’s armour.
The Kingsmen (which spell-check reminds me is one letter away from ‘kinsmen’) consecrate homosocial relationships, constructing a patrilineage where each generation inherit the customs and values of the last. In contrast, the role of the mother is spurned. Eggsy’s mum should have been nominated for the Academy Award for the most helpless character in the history of cinema. She is a passive object, beaten and sexually exploited by her layabout boyfriend and completely dependent on her son for help.
But clearly most of this is beside the point. The film is fun, and entertaining, and snappily done. None of these things are meant to be taken very seriously. The jaded moral message at the heart of the film is that a true gentleman’s virtue comes from within, but this is hardly what we’re supposed to come out of the cinema talking about. Neither should we be talking about the film’s ideological subtext, or about how genuinely moved we were by the Kingsman struggle in the face of Valentine’s plutocratic scheming.
Kingsman is a toying, postmodern pastiche of a Bond movie. Its gratuitous violence and sensational action sequences are taken to such extremes that it displays an ironic self-awareness of its own status as coarse entertainment. The Princess of Sweden is set up as a Gloriana-figure, an idealized symbol of moral purity, but the film closes with a joke about her having anal sex. The real reason they make their arch-villain an environmentalist is, well, why not? All religious belief in the film is fanatical and ridiculous: the megalomaniacal Valentine repeatedly compares his Chosen People to the Israelites, and we see, in a set-piece scene, a fundamentalist preacher spewing laughably overblown hate-speech into the ears of his congregation. The film knowingly and playfully aspires to nothing more serious than commercially successful blockbuster entertainment. Kingsman is a product of the entertainment industry, and we can enjoy this film like Valentine enjoys his McDonalds. Matthew Vaughn put his name to an open letter in the days preceding the Brexit referendum urging the British people to vote remain and help preserve the creative industry’s status as “the global powerhouse it currently is”. He is apparently a fan of Mrs. Thatcher and a member of the Conservative party. I think we can safely conclude that Kingsman’s plot was all a big joke.