Small Island (2009) is a BBC- produced movie based on the novel of the same name by Jamaican-British author Andrea Levy. It is distributed by PBS in North America.
The movie takes place during WW2 and the period immediately after. It follows the lives of Hortense (Naomie Harris) and Gilbert (David Oyelowo), a Jamaican couple, married out of convenience, that emigrate to Britain, after Gilbert’s service in the British Army during WW2.
The main characters in the book/movie are:
Gilbert, an ambitious Jamaican soldier who volunteers for the British Armed Forces and later travels to Britain to earn a living. Gilbert marries Hortense after she paid his fare to England. Gilbert learns that England, the Mother Country, is not all its glorified to be, after he faces under-employment, and racial discrimination when trying to find a place to stay.
Hortense is an uptight Jamaican school teacher, who is very proud, but very naive. Hortense, like many Jamaicans, grow-up believing that England is the Mother Country, and she has dreams of living in a house with a garden and “electric lights in every room.” She is later disappointed when she travels to England to live with Gilbert and finds that he lives in a small, one-room boarding house. Even so, Hortense believes that once she becomes a teacher, all will be well. She doesn’t realize that racial discrimination exists, not even after a shopkeeper refuses to take money from her hand directly. Only when her Jamaican-teaching qualifications are rejected and she’s laughed at by her interviewers, does she feel discriminated against.
Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) is a British young woman, who is the daughter of pig-farmers. She is “not like a lot of people around here,” as she tells Hortense; this shows in her willingness to provide room for Gilbert, whom she meets during the War. Queenie is unhappy with her husband, Bernard, a soft-spoken soldier who disappears after the war. Eventually, Queenie has an affair with a Jamaican soldier named Michael who boards at her house during the War. The affair results in a pregnancy that she conceals until the last minute. When the child is born, Queenie asks Hortense and Gilbert to take the child with them, out of fear that Bernard will treat the child like a burden and his life with her will be unhappy.
Bernard, Queen’s husband, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and like many white-Brits at the time, considers it unacceptable to deal with blacks as equals. He attempts to evict Gilbert and Hortense at one point, only to have Queenie put her foot down. He’s portrayed as not very strong-minded.
Small Island is an historical fiction novel. The characters are not real, but the story takes place in historical accurate time and place and deals with real issues faced by non-white immigrants during the periods after WW2, who were welcomed during the war but rejected when they attempted to make Britain home. Like Andrea Levy’s other book The Long Song, Small Island deals with the relationship between whites and blacks in historical context. It flashes between the past and the present, eventually ending in the present.
What I like about Small Island.
- It humanizes blacks.
- It is unbiased, without a chip on the author’s shoulders.
- Personalities are juxtaposed; not compared, contrasted or pitted against one another.
- It’s written by a Caribbean-based author
Andrea Levy answers questions about the novel and film adaptation here: