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Socialist Review, January 1994

Chris Nineham


Bad breeding

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Dir: Stephen Poliakoff

Set in London in 1899, Century makes a welcome change from the average British costume drama. Instead of the usual period setting we have a turn-of-the-century world full of change and conflict, a film full of ideas.

Century cleverly captures the excitement of a period of scientific progress and new inventions: the first phones are being installed, tramlines are laid, an electric signboard announces the coming of the new century.

The contradictions of change are clear too. We are shown homelessness and poverty alongside technological advance, and the resentment of the workers who have to operate the new dirty and repetitive machinery.

The film’s main characters are active participants in this changing world. Paul Reisner, the central figure, is an ambitious medical student inspired by the great strides being made in medical science.

Doubt and conflict set in when Reisner discovers that his teacher and hero is using new medical expertise to systematically sterilise the women of homeless families.

This episode is based on real history. In this period the eugenics movement campaigned for the sterilisation of the ‘degenerate’ – the poor and unemployed – arguing that the working classes were becoming too numerous and physically too feeble.

Britain’s position as the leading imperial power was under threat for the first time and working class movements across the world were beginning to stir. In these circumstances sections of the British upper and middle classes – including Fabian ‘socialists’ like the Webbs and Bernard Shaw – were attracted by the ideas of social engineering.

The use and misuse of science becomes the central dilemma of the film, and symbolically the central dilemma of the century. Unfortunately, the theme is not developed.

The film gives no clue to the real social or political origins of the eugenics movement and no sense of a wider political debate or struggle. We end up with a battle between the good guys and the bad guys over the use and abuse of new technology.

Although Century gives a flavour of the bustling and chaotic world of late 19th century Britain, it is not a successful or satisfying film. The characters are not placed in real debates and struggles, so the grand theme falls flat, the plot rambles and the big issues of the 20th century are presented as moral and not political questions.

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