FESTIVALS: New Brit Flicks; "One Life Stand," "Annie Mary," and "Darkest Light" Shine
by Paul Power
(indieWIRE/ 04.13.01) -- Perhaps we've come to expect too much in recent years from British cinema. The David Puttnam-led charge in the early '80s which soon fizzled out, prompted a return, for a while, to more modest filmmaking before a renaissance of sorts commenced in 1994 with the success of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (worldwide take: $262 million), followed by "Trainspotting," "The Full Monty," "Bean," "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and "Notting Hill."
Over the past five years, however, the twin lifelines of the British film industry -- government-sponsored tax breaks and the National Lottery funds for film -- have seen a rise in the fortunes of films from England and Scotland and, more recently, from Wales too. The current crop of films being screened in the Lincoln Center's annual New British Cinema series (13-26 April) is an interesting snapshot of what may prove to be a crossroads for British cinema, with old themes given new treatments, disquieting issues addressed head-on, and a chronicling of change in contemporary Britain.
Regional films have been a distinct hallmark of the last five years' output (Simon Beaufoy's Sheffield, Shane Meadows' Nottingham, the Edinburgh of Danny Boyle's Figment Films) and have been the biggest winners from the Lottery funding. It's fitting then that the New British Cinema series has films from rural Yorkshire ("The Darkest Light"), Wales ("Very Annie Mary," "House!"), Manchester ("There's Only One Jimmy Grimble"), Glasgow ("One Life Stand," "Gregory's Two Girls"), London's Camden Town ("This Year's Love") and, of course, its East End, 'ome of the villain ("Gangster No. 1," "The Criminal").
The now-jaded English gangster film, which has been so slickly commodified in both of Guy Ritchie's features, is hauled out again in Paul McGuigan's blood-drenched "Gangster No. 1." After disemboweling the sordid underbelly of Glasgow in "The Acid House," McGuigan takes another visceral trawl through urban lowlife -- this time the bad old gang days of East London. Malcolm McDowell, in a performance that is equal parts scenery-chewing and startling in its intensity, plays Gangster 55, a present-day hood who begins the film reminiscing with mates about his halcyon days. Although featuring McGuigan's now-trademark disorienting camera angles and points of view, and directed from an original script, "Gangster No. 1" feels curiously stage-bound, and in fact is closest in form to Jez Butterworth's "Mojo." While the staginess serves at times to accentuate the percolating bile that seeps through almost every scene (the word "cunt" is sneered more often than during a Tim Roth screen test), the result is a far less cinematic vision than could have been realized.
One of the strongest films in the series is Sara Sugarman's debut, "Very Annie Mary." This quirky musical coming-of-age tale features a wonderful performance from Jonathan Pryce as a jack-the-lad, opera-loving baker and another impressive turn from the versatile Rachel Griffiths as his eccentric daughter, Annie Mary. Griffiths plays the simple Annie Mary just this side of certifiable: a perfect take on a grown woman who is still hurtling through puberty, and yet sees the redeeming power of music and song to conquer all.
Just when you think you have got "One Life Stand" worked out, it twists and turns its way yet again to leave you wondering where you stand on sexual mores and social conventions. May Miles Thomas' DV feature is an engaging, claustrophobic one, with a memorable performance from Maureen Carr as Trise, a telephone tarot card reader, who's making extra money to indulge her 18-year-old son John Paul (John Kielty), who has aspirations of becoming a male model. Trise's expectations, however are shattered when John Paul finds more lucrative sidelines. Starkly shot in black and white digital video, the anonymous Glasgow locations take on a more grim hue through the desperately unhappy characters who populate it. Winner of several BAFTA New Talent Awards last year, "One Life Stand" is an impressive debut, with an Oedipal dynamic that gets right under the skin.
When you think about it, it's been a full generation since the last great-sustained burst of British filmmaking. The independent revolution that coursed through American cinema from the late '60s to the mid-70s had a parallel movement in Britain, reflected in a large number of films set in the north of England. Films such as "The Whisperers," "Charlie Bubbles," "O Lucky Man!" and "Get Carter," displaced forever the notion that anywhere north of Birmingham was the light-hearted playground of Ealing's comedies.
However the social realism of that era has since become a convenient shorthand for contemporary features. John Hay's "There's Only One Jimmy Grimble" fits this mould. Jimmy (Lewis McKenzie), a fatherless 12-year-old Manchester City soccer team fan, is a solitary kid, whose silky soccer skills fall foul of his low self-esteem when he plays for his school. In a plot device straight out of 'Billy's Boots' -- an English comic strip of the '70s -- Jimmy meets an old crone who gives him a pair of magic boots to help him play better. While Jimmy Grimble has shades of "Billy Elliot" in its theme of conquest of adversity through sport, plus its northern setting, its simplistic plot and thin characterizations proves to be disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying, even for this footy fan.
There's always room for an old-fashioned comedy, and Julian Kemp's "House!" delivers it with equal doses of high camp and magic realism. Set in a glorious Welsh bingo hall, which has known better days, employee Linda (Kelly Macdonald) is trying to keep the hall afloat in the face of competition from a modern bells and whistles venture across the street, while holding onto Gavin (Jason Hughes) her number caller and paramour. The two-dimensional characterizations are perfect for the bright and brash comedy that this is, with vivid modern and Victorian locations and a host of endearing, larger-than-life characters to populate them.
But the film that resonates most after viewing is "The Darkest Light," co-directed by Bille Eltringham and "The Full Monty" writer Simon Beaufoy. Set on a farm in Yorkshire, parents Sue and Tom (Kerry Fox and Stephen Dillane) try to balance time and attention between their 11-year-old Catherine (a marvelous performance by Keri Arnold) and younger son Matthew who is suffering from leukemia. In a scenario eerily prescient of the current agricultural crisis in Britain, birth, death and rebirth all fuse together to test a rural community's faith and belief in each other and in the hereafter. The gentle enveloping of the viewer in layers of faith, trust, belief and, ultimately, hope make "The Darkest Light" a most quietly arresting film.
Included somewhat incongruously in a British series (although the ubiquitous BBC Films provided some funding, the film is an Irish production and is set in coastal north Dublin) is Conor McPherson's debut, "Saltwater." Adapted from an early play, "This Lime Tree Bower," the whimsical heist and coming-of-age tale reunites Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson from "I Went Down," McPherson's first feature script. Again, the film hinges on the laughable results of a ham-fisted heist and the family that is somehow or other involved in the affair. Yet "Saltwater" is a genuine good-hearted film, with what has to be one of the grossest visual gags seen in a long time.
It's a pity -- or perhaps a reflection of the current output -- that there was no documentary or experimental work in this year's selection, such as "Gallivant" from 1999's series. Perhaps also it's a sign of some complacency in the British film industry, with its strong economy and franchise-ready cash for development and production, that the urgency to be inventive hasn't impressed itself upon filmmakers.
Yet the new films are important too: although only one Lottery-funded film in fourteen has made its money back, the amount of filmmaking activity under the new regime is considerable and is to be encouraged. With strong work emerging from such short filmmakers as Philippa Cousins and Tom Shankland, the future of British filmmaking certainly looks bright.
[Paul Power is managing editor of The Independent Film & Video Monthly.]