'The Divide': Film Review

Courtesy of Dartmouth Films
A rich subject let down by a poverty of ideas.
4/22/2016

Katharine Round’s documentary examines the social costs and human casualties created by deepening economic inequality.

Tackling a timely topic in this age of Bernie Sanders, the Panama Papers scandal and global economic turmoil, The Divide is a British-made documentary about the collateral damage of the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. Partly funded with an online Kickstarter campaign, Katharine Round’s film is a belated attempt to make a screen version of The Spirit Level, the 2009 nonfiction best-seller by U.K. academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which used extensive graphs and statistics to argue that countries with the highest income inequality suffer negative outcomes right across the social spectrum, from obesity to poor educational performance to rising crime rates.

Published as the world plunged into recession, Spirit Level became a word-of-mouth sensation in media and political circles. British Prime Minister David Cameron quoted it in his speeches, while right-wing publications inevitably ran scathing attacks on the authors and their methods. In a bid to connect with general audiences, Round’s film drops the abstract macro-economic analysis and turns instead to the micro-level human stories behind inequality. These decisions make perfect sense, on one level, but they also undermine the book’s clarity and moral force. Opening in Britain this week, The Divide is tailor-made for liberal-centric film festivals and niche distributors, but it is unlikely to join Al Gore and Michael Moore among the pantheon of classic campaigning documentaries.

Round’s interwoven character studies are all either U.K. or U.S. citizens, two nations where neo-liberal economics have been dominant over the past 30 years, and which also happen to come out worst in most inequality studies. Her interviewees include Arlen Cass, a Wall Street psychologist with aspirations to join the one percent; Darren McGarvey, an unemployed alcoholic living in an impoverished corner of Scotland; and Leah Taylor, a single mother struggling to survive in a low-wage fast-food joint in Georgia. “Every day above ground is a good day,” Taylor sighs after relating how her former partner died of cancer.

Bookended by clips from President Barack Obama’s 2012 state of the union address, The Divide also features first-hand interviews with expert commentators including dissident academic Noam Chomsky, economist Ha-Joon Chang and the Spirit Level authors themselves, Pickett and Wilkinson. There are snippets of scientific data scattered in the mix, but Round mostly sticks to observational vignettes of poverty and wealth, cutting between prison visit rooms and corporate boardrooms, deprived neighborhoods and gleaming gated communities.

Pinballing through the evils of status-driven consumerism, payday loans, forced evictions, the U.S. penal system and the Wal-Martification of minimum-wage America, The Divide is admirably ambitious in scope, though it ultimately lacks focus and bite. Countless previous documentaries have probed the gulf between the haves and have-nots, blaming and shaming, typically preaching to the converted. With The Spirit Level behind her, Round had the potential ammunition to mount a hard-nosed, fact-based argument against global inequality. Instead she seems to lose her nerve, obscuring the book’s clear-eyed rigor with tearjerking snapshots of broken lives. It’s a worthy effort, in all senses, but just another modestly scaled documentary about poverty and wealth rather than the Al Gore-sized blockbuster that this urgent issue deserves.

Production companies: Dartmouth Films, Literally Films
Cast: Noam Chomsky, Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, Arlen Cass, Leah Taylor, Darren McGarvey, Rochelle Monte
Director-producer: Katharine Round
Cinematographer: Woody James
Editor: John Mister
Music: Andrew Hewitt
Sales: Dartmouth Films

Not rated, 75 minutes

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