Romanticism v realism: Peter Rabbit digs up cinema’s conflicted relationship with the country
Following God’s Own Country, The Levelling, and The Goob, Clio Barnard’s new Yorkshire farming drama Dark River is the latest in a recent run of British movies giving us the hard truth about modern rural life. Here, the English countryside is a landscape of mud, mess, junk and – above all – hard work. It is a place of hardship, secrets and family conflict, where preparation for the role could involve killing and gutting a rabbit. It is also a place where you’re as likely to hear a Romanian accent as a Yorkshire one.
Ruth Wilson: ‘The industry sells sex… and that’s confusing’
By contrast, in Peter Rabbit – which arrives in US cinemas this week (16 Mar in the UK) – the English countryside is pleasant, green and very clean. The sun is always shining, everything is in full bloom, and there’s not a speck of mud to be seen. And nobody has any work to do: heroine Rose Byrne just paints all day in her conservatory, while hero Domhnall Gleeson inherits a grand old country house with fully stocked vegetable patch.
Of course, Dark River is a grownup drama and Peter Rabbit a children’s movie, but the difference in their depictions of the same landscape is jarring. You could also call it a division between realism and romanticism. Or perhaps one is for domestic consumption and the other for the export market. But, judging by these movies, the gap between the fantasy and the reality is widening. In fact, you could boil it down to a tale of two bunnies: with his little blue jacket and pristine fur, James Corden’s Peter Rabbit is as adorably cute as CGI can muster. Meanwhile, Dark River’s heroine unsentimentally skins and guts a dead rabbit for her supper. Several sheep are also seen off over the course of the film – one with a bolt gun, another ravaged by a dog. That’s the real countryside for you.