WORLD CINEMA REPORT: The British (and Scottish) are Coming!
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 10.23.02) — When three of the best movies of the year come from the U.K., is it a trend? An anomaly? A new cycle? Watching impish British star Samantha Morton, clad in a fire-engine red rain jacket, sashay through a crowd last weekend at New York’s Tribeca Grand, it became clear: whatever it is, the new British film scene has magnetism, uniqueness and beauty. Morton was in town for an advanced screening of Lynne Ramsay‘s “Morvern Callar,” the Scottish born director’s stunning follow-up to “Ratcatcher.” Along with Paul Greengrass‘ engrossing “Bloody Sunday” (currently in release), and veteran Mike Leigh‘s emotional powerhouse “All or Nothing” (opening this Friday), the year is finishing up as a testament to what the U.K. industry can produce.
Called a “poetic epic” by some, and just plain “beautiful” by others, “Morvern Callar” received gushing support at Saturday’s screening, with indie notables like Ted Hope, Anthony Bregman, Jem Cohen, and Tamara Jenkins all coming out to catch Ramsay’s latest effort, a dream-like retro-hip masterpiece about a supermarket sales clerk (Morton) who steals her boyfriend’s novel after his suicide and goes on a hedonistic journey with her best-friend. With free CDs of the film’s evocative score on hand (Ramsay told indieWIRE, “Sound is just as important as image; it’s half the movie”), audiences even got to take 50% of the film home with them.
Ramsay was admittedly a tad overwhelmed by the attention, “I have to be pragmatic and I have to focus on the work,” she said between sips of champagne. The director is currently writing an adaptation of this season’s hot property, Alice Sebold‘s “The Lovely Bones,” which she planned to make for Film Four before the novel became a bestseller — and before the company collapsed.
With major players now knocking on her door to co-finance the project with the currently scaled-down Channel Four film arm (Ramsay rattled off contenders like James Schamus at Focus and Bingham Ray at UA), the young auteur is undaunted by mainstream access: after all, she’s already once taken a seemingly conventional film (“Callar”) and transformed it into a personal, breathless piece of art.
Ramsay plans to shoot “The Lovely Bones” next summer States-side, confirming her entrance into the American industry, while “Morvern Callar” comes to theaters via Cowboy Pictures this December. “The more we make a film so everyone likes it, the worse it is,” she said, disparaging Hollywood product as “dumb and boring.” “I don’t want to see TV in the cinema,” she added.
As for a potential U.K. revival, Ramsay notes a cultural shift in the country that is giving more credence to film as art, rather than pop entertainment (or what could be called the “Full Monty” complex). This month’s issue of Brit film mag Sight and Sound devoted itself to British Cinema and this very question. In a length essay called “Reasons To Be Cheerful,” Ryan Gilbey writes, “2002 has delivered a string of films that wholeheartedly abstain from the pleading, the spoon feeding, which have come to characterise [sic] British cinema. None of this new crop displays a desire to be the next ‘Billy Elliot‘; they might have been made in a world where ‘Billy Elliot’ had never happened.”
British master Mike Leigh is wary of the term “revival,” but he does admit that “Twenty years ago, there were no British indigenous films made at all. We were prolific in TV, but absent from the world cinema stage. Had you described my future international trajectory, I would have laughed in your face. Actually, I would have broken your leg out of frustration.”
Leigh’s new film “All or Nothing” combines the intertwining complexity of his period piece “Topsy Turvy” with the intimate family pyrotechnics of his previously celebrated hits “Secrets and Lies” and “Life is Sweet.” “I think it’s one of my most successful attempts to make a complex and profound study of people with a lot of characters, all interrelating,” Leigh says proudly. Sight and Sound agreed, calling it his “most assured cinema” and using the film as a jumping off point for the current trend of artful and austere British works.
Of course, Leigh is a unique case among British directors. He sets his own pace when making a film and receives financing largely from France (he even calls himself “a European filmmaker.”)
“It’s quite hard for British filmmakers to get proper backing, and the demise of Film Four is not only tragic but ridiculous,” says Leigh. Like many, he blames the once slacking state of the U.K. industry — and Film Four’s demise — with its desire to “genuflect to Hollywood and make formulaic commercial films.” “The good news,” continues Leigh, “is now I think it’s improving.”
“At last, British cinema is not crap,” echoes Neil Hunter, co-director with Tom Hunsinger of “The Lawless Heart,” a multi-character portrait that will compete for best film honors at the British Independent Film Awards next week. (The other nominees are: “Bloody Sunday,” “Morvern Callar,” Gurinder Chadha’s broad comedy “Bend It Like Beckham,” and Ken Loach‘s acclaimed “Sweet Sixteen.” Winners will be announced next Wednesday.) The duo is also up for top directing and screenwriting honors. And “Heart” actor Bill Nighy will vie for an acting prize alongside other inspired performers like James Nesbitt (“Bloody Sunday”) and Timothy Spall (“All or Nothing”).
While Hunter agrees that the industry has turned a corner for the better, he can’t say why. “I don’t trust any of the explanations,” he says. Still, he agrees that the era of superficial British romantic comedies — “which were neither comedies nor romantic,” he says — brought the overall prestige of the industry down.
After a formidable 12-week run in the UK, “The Lawless Heart” will hit U.S. theaters next year, leading the way for a number of highly touted upcoming British indies. Hunter and Hunsinger highlight Asif Kapadi‘s “The Warrior” (which Miramax is releasing) as one to watch. Expect newcomer Marc Evan‘s horror sensation “My Little Eye” to make it across the pond as well.
Among the stalwarts, Steven Frears returns to a more gritty milieu with “Dirty Pretty Things” (Miramax); Lions Gate will Ken Loach’s Cannes favorite “Sweet Sixteen”; Sony Classics will put out Shane Meadow‘s “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands“; and Wellspring will distribute the DV thriller “This is Not a Love Song,” directed by Billie Eltringham and scripted by none other than Simon Beaufoy (“Full Monty“).
But before you whisper sell out, Sight and Sound quipped, “‘This Is Not a Love Song’ might reasonably be retitled ‘This Is Not The Full Monty’…The film has its heart in the right place — or, from a commercial perspective, the wrong place, since it gives short shrift to such trifles as audience empathy, backstory and closure, becoming through their absence a kind of Pinteresque ‘Southern Comfort.'”
Lynne Ramsay tipped indieWIRE off to a hotbed of talent from her native Scotland, such as Peter Mullan (“The Magdelene Sisters,” coming out next year), David MacKenzie (“The Last Great Wilderness,” “Young Adam“) and shorts director Mourag McKinnon (“Home,” “Birthday“).
And projects in the pipeline look just as promising: John Maybury, the visionary mind behind “Love is the Devil,” is set to make J.G. Ballard‘s “Super-Cannes” and Pawel Pawlikowski, director of the brilliant “Last Resort,” is under contract to shoot a new movie for BBC Films, which could be the Balkan-set drama called “Arizona.” According to Variety, music vid maven Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast“) will start shooting his next film “Birth,” a $20 million mystery with the help of Fine Line, and the prolific Michael Winterbottom preparing “The Silk Road,” a story of two Afghan brothers trying to escape to England as well as “Code 46,” a romantic sci-fi thriller for United Artists.
That takes care of just about everyone, except Jamie Thraves (“The Low Down“); if he’s not among the current U.K. revival, he deserves to jump on board.