Grenfell (2023) ****

The single take has been the Holy Grail of directors ever since Alfred Hitchcock just about managed to use it for the entirety of Rope (1948). A quarter of a century on critics were raving about the complete one-take circle Michelangelo Antonioni achieved in The Passenger (1975) and half a century later for Sam Mendes’s  1917 (2019).  Every now and then an audacious director tries to earn kudos by employing the single take for long periods or editing a film in such a way as to get the same effect.

Oscar-winning British director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, 2013) has jumped to the top of that particular technical tree by shooting all of Grenfell in one single mostly silent aerial take. I happen to be a big fan of the single take, much as I thoroughly enjoy reading long sentences in books. And for the same reason: the result is often hypnotic.  

The movie opens in the sky a good distance from London to which the camera moves in stately progression. Below is traditional English countryside cut up by long avenues of trees. As we approach the city of London, all that divides the close-packed houses are other houses, although, it being England, there are still swathes of green.

This is what Grenfell looked like in 2009. Now it’s windowless and blackened.
Photocredit: Robin Sones, CC BY-SA 2.0,

We take a right as we fly over Wembley Station, the soccer fan’s Holy Grail, home of the F.A. Cup Final, international football matches and countless rock concerts including the legendary Live Aid (most recently replicated in Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018).  Gradually, in the distance appears something untoward. We are not close enough to the ground to see when buildings have lost their sheen, but high enough so that they still seem solid. But up ahead, coming slowly into view, is a jarring spectacle.

A charred skyscraper. Grenfell Tower. The remains of a devastating fire that in June 2017 killed 72 inhabitants. Some of the lower floors are white, which makes the upper floors stand out in sharper contrast. What work is going on is hard to determine – there’s a crane and men working on scaffolding. Maybe they are just adding more white panels to cover up the ruin, some kind of PR exercise to rid the city of the monstrosity and the memory of what happens when money talks and warnings are ignored.

The building is a rarity for such a devastating fire. After blazes with such a high death toll, there’s not much left of a structure, usually an empty shell, or as with the 9/11 Twin Towers nothing at all. This was a different kind of fire. Faulty easily-combustible plastic “cladding” – “siding” to use the American term as in the ubiquitous “aluminum siding” that Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito sold in Tin Men (1987) – caused the catastrophe, allowing flames to race up the sides, emanating toxic smoke, too quickly for those inside to escape.

The camera takes a few turns around the building and you can glimpse the dead interior and imagine the lives once lived.

It’s not a long film. Only 24 minutes, and a chunk of that taken up with just getting there. Now it stands as a monument to injustice. Though the building lies within a prosperous London borough, only the poor lived here, and possibly might have only done so until they could be kicked out and the building demolished by a more normal means so that upmarket apartments could be sold to richer people.

As the camera rotates round the building, coming at it from slightly different angles, and without music to infuse it with deceptive grandeur, the result is less hypnotic than disorientating and your mind has to work hard to snatch at the images being shown, taking a while to realize that there’s going to be no coup de theatre, no grandstand finish, no sigh of relief – none of the “oh, that’s what it’s all about” that accompanies some opaque arthouse picture.

It ends as it begins with a blank screen, no credits.

It’s something of a cult film. There’s only one print and it’s only showing in one cinema, and not the kind you find in a multiplex, just a space within the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park in London. Admission is free and there are several showings at day. It was self-funded by McQueen, who had links to the Grenfell community, went to art school nearby and ran a stall at a market not far away. But it’s not intended for commercial purpose. There might not even be a DVD or end up on a streaming channel as I guess part of the experience is to see it with a group of people and all come out shell-shocked to the foyer and stare at the list of the names of the victims.

It’s running in London till May 10 so maybe if you’re over for the Coronation of King Charles you might just happen upon it. I was in London on Sunday past visiting my son and he had arranged the tickets. He’s pretty good at this sort of thing, one other time I saw him he had got tickets to see that eternally-long film about clocks (whose name I forget) at the Tate.  I doubt if anyone’s going to fly thousands of miles just to see it, but my guess is it will eventually go on tour and be shown in one museum after another.

Unlike the Twin Towers, there’s no one group to blame, but like the worst of ordinary disasters it’s a combination of various corporations and community officials whose watchword is greed or disinterest rather than common humanity.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

11 thoughts on “Grenfell (2023) ****”

  1. This sounds powerful. I appreciate the fact that it is being shown in such a limited way and may never receive any form of wider distribution. The internet and the digitalization of media have rendered so much art and entertainment effectively valueless content. I’d very much like to see this but also take a certain comfort in knowing that I can’t and that the film will perhaps have a deeper value to those fortunate enough to have viewed it not unlike a great concert or piece of theater.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are right in imagining that it is a piece of theatre, but more so in that it is being viewed with a community rather than in your home on your own. Coming out seeing the looks on people’s faces that probably mirrored your own was an expereince.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Which is why watching films at home has its place but nothing can replace the collective experience of watching a movie with a crowd in a theater. I’m impressed that McQueen financed this out of his own pocket and is intent on keeping it a theatrical experience.
        On a side note, you did a great job describing the film and the experience of watching it. I’ve been reading film writing since the seventies and your work here is always exceptional.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. This is interesting and I’m glad you were able to see it and write your posting. I don’t know how well you know London and its more than thirty years since I lived there so I’m reluctant to comment in too much detail but I’d like to just say that I blame the disaster on the consequences of Thatcher’s housing policies and her attacks on local governments after 1979. The Tory councils in London (especially Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth) who slavishly pursued them have developed some policies that have caused real suffering for poorer residents. Kensington & Chelsea passed responsibility for Grenfell and other council housing stock to an arms-length ‘Management Group’ Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). At the Public Inquiry into the fire the ‘Grenfell Next of Kin Group’ stated that: “Systemic racism goes deep to the heart of the problem that caused the catastrophe. Questions around race and social class are at the heart of this truth-seeking and we would be grateful if you can revisit it and add it as an extra module.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I lived in London for nealry 20 years so I’m well aware of the systemic racism and lack of support for the poorer members of society especially those who end up living in a rich area. Hopefully, justice will prevail and not just fill the pockets of lawyers.

      Liked by 2 people

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