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Century (1993)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Century (1993)
DirectorStephen Poliakoff
Production CompaniesBBC
 Beambright Productions
ProducerThérèse Pickard
ScriptStephen Poliakoff
PhotographyWitold Stok
MusicMichael Gibbs

Cast: Clive Owen (Paul Reisner), Charles Dance (Professor Mandry), Miranda Richardson (Clara), Robert Stephens (Mr Reisner), Joan Hickson (Mrs Whitewater), Neil Stuke (Felix)

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A young doctor joins a medical institute at the turn of the year 1900, finding himself at odds with the head doctor.

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Stephen Poliakoff's Century begins on the last day of 1899, a time when British society was energised by giant leaps in scientific and medical discovery, and filled with hope and enthusiasm for the future. Setting the story at this significant moment in history, Poliakoff explores his thematic preoccupations: the effects of commerce and science on individuals and society.

Released in 1993, Century sees Poliakoff drawing comparisons with the approaching millennium, stressing the politics of scientific progress and the effects on individuals and society. The doctors discuss possible medical advances in the next century, speculating about the eradication of certain diseases.

The conflict between Professor Mandry (Charles Dance) and Paul (Clive Owen) lies at the centre of the film, representing different perspectives on scientific progress. Mandry is progressive for his time in some respects - he hires black people and women to work at the institute - and Paul is initially inspired by him. But Paul becomes disillusioned when Mandry fails to acknowledge Felix's (Neil Stuke) potentially important work on insulin.

The main reason for Paul's falling out with Mandry is the discovery that he has performed enforced sterilisations on a number of women in London's slums. Mandry has developed an interest in eugenics, fashionable among 'progressive' thinkers of the period - including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw - who advocated sterilisation as a means of preventing 'undesirables' from reproducing, thereby promoting a 'superior' race. The parallels with attitudes to the Jews in Hitler's Germany are clear, and the undercurrents of anti-Semitism in Britain are highlighted when Paul's father (Robert Stephens) is driven out of town.

Clara (Miranda Richardson), Paul's lover, is an archetype of the modern woman, fiercely independent, employed and sexually adventurous. By contrast, the institute's elderly patron Mrs. Whitweather (Joan Hickson) represents a continuing strand of classic English eccentricity. She is relatively unperturbed when told of Mandry's sterilisations, but when she discovers that animals are being used for experiments, she closes the institute down. But Paul's success is a mixed blessing: he ends Mandry's experiments, but at the cost of his own opportunities.

Century atmospherically recreates London at this watershed moment, reflecting the complex mood of the time, caught between excitement and anxiety at the birth of a new century.

Chris Allison

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Video Clips
1. The new century (2:54)
2. Prof Mandy and Paul (4:44)
3. Work on insulin (4:03)
4. Paul is expelled (3:37)
5. A shocking discovery (2:35)
Dance, Charles (1946-)
Owen, Clive (1964-)
Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)
Richardson, Miranda (1959-)
Stephens, Robert (1931-1995)
Strong, Mark (1963-)