Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Consistency Act

This blog is rated 15 for infrequent strong sex references.

The new Fionn Whitehead film, The Children Act, is one of those curious cases where the film is rated 12A in Britain and Ireland, yet got an R in America.

When this is the case, at least the ratings reasons in the countries are the same, and it just so happens that one examination board deemed the content permissible at the lower rating, and the other board did not.

Cases in point: the extended version of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (#DontReleaseTheSnyderCut) was a 12A in the UK for moderate violence and threat, but Ireland and the US deemed it too violent and rated it 15 and R, respectively. Similarly, the Richard Curtis romantic comedy About Time was a 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references in the UK and Ireland, but both of these elements were considered too much for the PG-13 in America, and slapped with an R rating accordingly.

What made The Children Act so atypical of this pattern, however, was that its reason for getting its rating in the UK/Ireland were completely different from its MPAA reason:

With regards to classifying sex references, I understand that judging them is hardly a precise science, and there have been films which have received different ratings in the three countries due to the borderline nature of their sex references.

An example I often cite is Dumb and Dumber To, where Jim Carey's not-too-bright character is tricked into fingering an old woman, which he later reflects upon, 'I just finger-banged an old lady!'.

'Finger-bang' is an Americanism which isn't really used over here, but even so, the line was considered too puerile for 12A, and got a 15 in the UK and 15A in Ireland, whereas it received a PG-13 in America. The BBFC's aversion to this term was confirmed when they rated an episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a 15 for an utterance of the same term.

Another example to illustrate America's slightly higher tolerance for sexual dialogue is Easy A, also a PG-13 in the States and a 15/15A here and in Ireland.

Easy A revolves around Olive, who, inadvertently inspired by the novel they're studying in High School, The Scarlet Letter, lets her peers lie about having had sexual favours from her in order to boost her own social standing. Unsurprisingly, given the conceit of the film, sex jokes are embedded in the film's witty script from start to finish, and the BBFC and IFCO took issue with the frequency of this blue talk, taking the film to 15.

In both Dumb and Dumber To and Easy A's cases (as well as several other films, including Mustang, White Chicks, Date Night and What If...) demonstrates the MPAA's higher tolerance for sex references than the 12A, so I was confused at what the sexual reference could possibly be to take The Children Act to R, when the BBFC and IFCO didn't even flag it (and indeed, the sex box of the IFCO is ticked just mild).

Well, a friend of mine saw the film, and was able to answer this query for me: -

How ironic, that it was the same line of dialogue that was the classification issue for all three boards, yet for different reasons!

The Children Act getting an R for this line is ridiculous. My Best Friend's Wedding, which came out 21 years ago (just two months after Fionn Whitehead was born, in fact) features the line, 'He came in for a few hours to, er, f_ck me', and was only a PG-13.

Similarly, in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, which came out a year prior to that, Uma Thurman's character tells Janeane Garofalo's, 'I'd f_ck you'. That was also a PG-13 (admittedly on appeal, but still).

This inconsistency from the MPAA is up there with the BBFC's most egregious mistakes, but it actually has an explanation. Not a very good one, admittedly, but an explanation nonetheless.

See, with the MPAA, studios can actually request a higher rating than one which the content of the film merits. This is if the film's producers want their picture to have the optics of a 'prestige picture', with some ratings being associated with a higher level of prestige than others.

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, which was a PG in Britain and Ireland but a PG-13 in America, is one such possible case. I highly doubt the King of Quirky, Wes Anderson, would want his oh-so-quirky film to share the same rating as Disney films like Frozen or Zootopia.

And, given The Children Act contains a line of dialogue who's variants have been uttered at PG-13 before, I suspect the film's R rating was another such case. Its distributors are A24, who were behind the masterpiece that was Moonlight as well as last year's The Florida Project and Lady Bird. All these films are R-rated, so they perhaps thought a perceived 'more grown up' film would be correlative of awards success.

This point is given further clout if you consider that The Children Act is based on an Ian McEwan novel. All of his high-profile film adaptations: Atonement, Enduring Love and this year's On Chesil Beach are R-rated (15 in the UK), and it's possible he wanted to sustain that pattern. His books definitely read as adult books, rather than Mickey Mouse PG-13-rated ones, to be fair.

I'm not a fan of film studios tampering with the ratings of their own films, but, I guess the flip side is that if they couldn't request a higher rating, film writers will just purposely shoe-horn artificial lines of dialogue to procure a desired rating (as was the case with two 2016 Oscar contenders, La La Land and Arrival, forcing the f-word into their films to get the more lucrative PG-13), so the alternative is hardly any better.


As mentioned, Freckly Fionn Whitehead stars in The Children Act. I happened to see the man himself a few weeks ago on the Tube in central London, and it was fangirl heaven.

He seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere, so all I could do was blurt out 'are you Fionn Whitehead?!?!?!?!?!?', which was a missed opportunity that I'm still kicking myself about.

What I should have done was say to him was 'I just loved you in Interstellar!'

For more film ratings-related geekery, click here.

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