What leaps to mind when you think "British film"? Is it all tea and crumpets, Jane Austen costume dramas, and genteel swearing by the King? With maybe some Cockney gangsters thrown in for spice?
Not that there isn’t some of that, but: look. You’re probably not even aware of all the British film you’re seeing. "Gravity" had studio backing but is basically a British production. Ditto "Les Misérables," "World War Z," "Fast & Furious 6," and the tragically underappreciated Formula 1 action drama "Rush." On the screen you might be looking at Hollywood money, but you’re also looking at British talent: "Rush," for instance, replicated global settings shooting mostly in the U.K., and it was British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and British production designer Mark Digby who made the film look like a hundred million bucks instead of its relatively paltry budget of $38 million. And "Gravity" would not succeed absent the groundbreaking visual work created primarily by London FX house Framestore.
We can probably thank
the "Harry Potter" juggernaut for drawing big productions back to the
British Isles after Hollywood had decamped to Australia and New Zealand
for a while. And it’s ongoing: The much-anticipated David Ayer-Brad Pitt
WWII action drama "Fury," opening later this year, was shot in England.
The new "Star Wars" films will be produced in the U.K. The triumph of
"Gravity" will surely draw other FX-heavy projects to London. Which
means, with U.K. tax incentives giving an extra boost to Hollywood films
shooting in the U.K. that cast European actors (as the L.A. Times discussed recently),
global audiences are suddenly going to find themselves newly exposed to a
lot of fantastic British actors whose homegrown work is worth checking out.
But it's already happening: You'll want to see "Locke," opening in limited release in the U.S. on April 25th, because it stars Tom Hardy as a guy who spends the whole movie in his car rushing someplace important we aren’t immediately made privy to, and dealing with a whole lot of consequences via numerous phone conversations. It’s from British writer-director Stephen Knight (he wrote "Eastern Promises" and "Dirty Pretty Things"), and it is unexpectedly riveting, thanks to an intense performance from Hardy that will come as no surprise to those who’ve seen him in far bigger films. On April 4th, look for "Dom Hemingway," in which Jude Law busts some Brit-gangster stereotypes as a guy just out of prison and looking to reclaim his life. You will want to see "Filth," a loud, crude, obnoxious, and very, very politically incorrect followup to "Trainspotting" (it’s also based on an Irvine Welsh novel). From Scottish writer-director Jon S. Baird and starring James McAvoy, "Filth" hits VOD services on April 24th, and theaters on May 30th.
You will also want to check out "A Fantastic Fear of Everything" (available now on VOD and in limited theatrical release), in which Simon Pegg stars as a not-at-all-mentally-well writer; the project also represents his first foray into producing. The film is wildly daring in a way that no Hollywood production employing Pegg could ever be (and also likely helped inform his second production job, "The World’s End," another studio-backed but essentially British film).
And speaking of VOD: With the rapid expansion of on-demand as a viable platform for bringing small films to wide audiences, British films that otherwise wouldn’t find much of a foothold in North America suddenly have a way in. That’s already happening, too: "The Selfish Giant," a fable about poor kids selling scrap metal, is now available on demand after a tiny U.S. theatrical release late last year. The film received numerous nominations at this year’s British Independent Film Awards and several at the London Critics Circle Film Awards, and has garnered lots of love at festivals and from British critics, especially for writer-director Clio Barnard. Ben Wheatley -- who gave us last year’s wickedly funny black comedy "Sightseers" (now on VOD) -- is back with he trippy historical mind-frak "A Field in England" (which came out in limited release and VOD on February 7th).
If you’ve got a region-free DVD player (and all movie lovers in the U.S. should), you’ll find that transatlantic shipping from Amazon.co.uk is surprisingly reasonable. (You also won’t pay the U.K.’s national 20 percent sales tax, the VAT, when you ship something outside the U.K., and since the VAT is included in the prices you see listed at the site, your final tally will be gratifyingly smaller than you’re expecting.) It’s a great way to catch up on some extraordinary films that you'd otherwise not be able to access. These include the fantastic genre-busting drama-thriller "Metro Manila," from writer-director Sean Ellis; the film debuted at Sundance in 2013 but is unlikely to ever get a U.S. release, especially now that it’s been picked up by Fox for a studio remake. (Perhaps with its Filipino setting and Tagalog dialog, it’s simply too un-British for American perceptions of a British film! I predict the remake will be set in Los Angeles.)
There's so much exciting work being done in British film that I’ve barely scratched the surface. Movies such as "Philomena" and "The Invisible Woman" are turning upside down twee notions of modern British attitudes and beloved historical figures ("Woman" is about Charles Dickens' mistress, after all). British films are giving American actors room to grow and breathe in ways that Hollywood isn’t: the Scottish "Under the Skin" and "The Double," from actor-writer-director Richard Ayoade, allow, respectively, Scarlett Johansson, as an alien serial killer, and Jesse Eisenberg, as a man tormented by his doppelganger, fantasy realms in which to stretch their talents. (Both films arrive in the U.S. in April.) As a whole, these movies speak to one indisputable conclusion: If you’re not paying attention to British indies, you’re missing out on some of the most exhilarating work being done in contemporary cinema.