The Kitchen, a new dystopian thriller directed by Daniel Kaluuya, arrived on Netflix at the end of last week. A tale of haves and have-nots set in London in 2040, the film presents us with “a future where the gap between the rich and the poor has reached its limits”, and where the vast majority of social housing has been privatised. Kaluuya calls the work both a dystopian drama and a “love letter to London”.
Britain’s capital has been the backdrop for many dystopian visions, on page and screen. An oppressed underclass might struggle against an authoritarian government, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four or V For Vendetta. An experimental way of living could be introduced, leading to violent class struggle, as happens in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, while Brave New World depicts a stratified society in which the underlings have their agency taken away via doping. In each case, a key theme is the desire to escape.
The Kitchen, however, is different, telling a deeply confused story which manages to both romanticise and applaud poverty. The deprivation in which the underdogs live turns out to be the status quo they are righteously campaigning to uphold. The titular housing estate more closely resembles university halls than a crumbling slum under siege — walls are painted goofy colours and cheerful reggae fills the corridors.
Talk of food scarcity doesn’t stop our protagonists from enjoying a full English at the local greasy spoon, which is softly lit with chic, rustic furniture. This sentimentalised depiction of inner-city, below-the-line living would be difficult to accept were the film set in 2024. As a vision of a future London in which the gap between rich and poor has been stretched further than it already is, it verges on delusional.
Kaluuya’s low estimation of the richer London outside the Kitchen is cartoonishly signposted. Where the estate’s colour palette is a technicolour dream, a step outside brings a shift to drab greyness. The main character, Izi, manages to put down a deposit for a new flat outside the estate through no great struggle, simply by turning up for his relatively low-pressure nine-to-five. The ease with which he leaves the Kitchen prompts viewers to ponder: if moving out of a food and water-deprived “slum” is an option, why don’t the other residents want to do the same?
The answer the film seemingly posits is: because poverty isn’t all that bad. It also makes people happier, kinder and more community-minded. Those like Izi, who want running water and to own a house, end up sad and alone.
This attitude can also be seen in the most recent series of Top Boy, a gritty drama about gang warfare on the fictional Summerhouse estate in Hackney. Earlier series were brutal in their depiction of the violence and deprivation estate residents had to endure. But the show’s last episodes began to drift into sentimental territory. Despite unemployment, drug addiction and murder still being prevalent at Summerhouse in Series Three, hackneyed storylines then took over, making sure to inform the audience of the estate’s enviable community spirit.
In one Top Boy episode, Immigration Enforcement turns up at a secondary character’s flat to have him deported. Despite his proven brutality, when officials turn up the entire estate comes together, staging a sit-down protest in front of the Immigration Enforcement van. Heartwarming. This may imply The Kitchen isn’t a total anomaly, but instead part of a growing trend in British drama which sentimentalises victims of deprivation. By portraying these characters as blissful in their impoverished state, Kaluuya and other directors suggest that their poverty is exactly what engenders kindness and solidarity.
Here, poverty isn’t so much an unfortunate state as an identity or admirable character trait. What The Kitchen really warns of is a future in which identity is threatened, and the result is a film which would appear more like a utopian vision of London to most living on the breadline today.