UK Release Date: 8th September 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Daniel Draper
Writer: Daniel Draper
Starring: Dennis Skinner
Synopsis: A detailed look at the life and career of long-standing Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who has become notorious for his outspoken antics and nicknamed ‘The Beast of Bolsover’.
There aren’t many faces in the House of Commons as immediately recognisable as Dennis Skinner, who has been Labour MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire since 1970. Affectionately dubbed the ‘Beast of Bolsover’, he’s a former miner and lifelong socialist, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Whether it’s his famous heckles at the state opening of Parliament or his repeated expulsions from the House for refusing to retract inflammatory comments, he’s a memorable and fearsome character.
All of this makes him an ideal subject for documentary film Nature of the Beast, which traces his life from a working class upbringing in a mining community to the green benches of the Commons. We meet his brothers, who talk with twinkly-eyed nostalgia about their mother’s singing, but also have battle scars from years fighting the spread of right-wing politics. Meanwhile, director Daniel Draper spends a great deal of time with his subject, examining the principles of his politics, his rise to power and also his perhaps unexpected love for the beauty of nature.
From a cinematic perspective, there isn’t much to write home about in Nature of the Beast. It’s a pretty ordinary talking head tale, with archive footage from the mines and left-wing protest songs used to stitch together the highlights of his political career and some tender recollections from his past. The film’s micro-budget genesis – funded by a mixture of union grants and a Kickstarter campaign – certainly shows in its straightforward staging and small-scale feel. This, however, feels insignificant given the towering presence of Skinner at its heart. Where the direction sometimes lacks charisma, Skinner is able to provide it in spades.
Skinner is an engaging central figure for the documentary, in all of his forms. His political speeches show clear passion and the righteous fury of a man who has spent his entire life fighting political elites. Skinner lights up in a scene where he recalls his mischievous filibuster of Enoch Powell in 1985, which preserved the progression of stem cell research in the UK and ranks as a highlight of his career. It’s clear throughout that Skinner is a man who is intensely passionate about his politics and regards his work as a noble public service, rather than simply a job. This love also comes through in the appearances from Skinner’s constituents, who all speak fondly of the man who has represented them for almost 50 years.
Draper’s film is even more intriguing, though, when Skinner sheds his tweed and tie combo to explore the parks of London. It’s here the title’s alternative meaning becomes clear, with Skinner’s love of nature every bit as important as his status as a political beast. There are several scenes devoted to Skinner simply singing to camera or explaining his appreciation of a particular tree. This is a man whose love of life has not been dampened by years at the political coal face and it’s in these scenes that Nature of the Beast comes closest to a more detailed portrait of the man behind the Beast.
It’s a shame that Nature of the Beast feels somewhat lacking in its big screen ambitions because, at its best, it’s an interesting and reverent look at a man who will go down as one of the most memorable characters in British political history. Draper also misses the chance to interrogate Skinner on the current political situation, with the issues of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit barely touched upon. While this is presumably an attempt at providing the documentary with a timeless feel, it just ends up making it look as it’s already out of date.
Pop or Poop?
Despite its minimal budget and rather uninspiring visual feel, Nature of the Beast excels as a look at the life and times of a political heavyweight. Those unfamiliar with Skinner will get a worthwhile primer on his politics and those who know his highlight reel already get plenty of depth about the man behind the filibustering and marches.
The documentary could’ve done with a little more modern context, but it does good work as a portrait of a man who has dedicated a lifetime to fighting the system.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.