British cinema is in constant dialogue with the heritage industry, and there is no shortage of films set in the past — with particularly popular eras being during World War II and the 1950s (as seen here), the Victorian age, or the Tudors. Plenty of women have turned their hand to this heritage, finding further interest in underseen representations (particularly in recent years): Amma Assante put a Black British perspective into the 18th century in Belle, while this film’s conservative small town 1950s setting adds a lesbian romance.
If there’s one thing I’ve gained growing up, it’s a tolerance for fairly desultory period movies, especially ones set in gloomy parts of the UK. This one is set in Scotland in 1952, which is more or less exactly when Carol (2015) was set, but this takes rather a different, let’s say more traditional arc. The two central women (Holliday Grainger’s Lydia, and Anna Paquin’s Dr Jean Markham) find each other and then, in time-honoured fashion, unleash all the ire and judgement that a small close-minded town can muster — and, in the final act, this feels like rather too much. I liked the set-up, and I particularly liked both central performances, even if Anna Paquin has a patchy Scottish accent and spends much of the film looking anguished. There’s also some rather iffy bee CGI towards the end, extending a metaphor which doesn’t entirely hold together. Basically I wanted to like this well-mounted film more than I ended up doing, but it has its moments.
CREDITS Director Annabel Jankel; Writers Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (based on the novel by Fiona Shaw); Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek; Starring Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin; Length 106 minutes. Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 20 July 2019.
Expatriate Chinese director Xiaolu Guo is another key figure in British (and indeed wider European) arts scene, who has made a number of films which bridge documentary and drama and don’t really sit very comfortably within British filmmaking, preferring a rather more avant-garde praxis and perhaps better suited to gallery spaces.
One of Xiaolu Guo’s growing body of films clearly made on a shoestring budget, pitched somewhere in between documentary and fiction. Perhaps this is because of the way they’re filmed, or because they deal with real people in fictionalised scenarios, but it’s interesting to see these five disparate people enact a drama around the reproduction of a Caravaggio painting. Four of these men live in London (none of them English, it would seem, and Brexit inevitably plays a background role), while the artist of the painting is in China, one of a village community entirely filled with artists. One of the four London-based men, a photographer, strips off to pose on trees for his own photos, a hairy counterpoint to the smooth features and perfect light of the young man in Caravaggio’s painting. Another of them is a philosopher, but dabbles in art himself, endlessly trying to reconfigure and improve the reproduction painting, a philosophical exercise perhaps. The third is a writer, displaced from Ethiopia via the Sudan, who has a shelf full of books by Deleuze that he barely understands, but reads obsessively and quotes from, and here we have this idea of the time-image (his are key texts for theorists of cinema), which is I guess what the Caravaggio reproduction functions as for the fourth man, a poet. There’s a lot to unpack, and Guo’s films aren’t always the most accessible, but she’s an artist and this is another of her reproducible works.
CREDITS Director/Writer/Cinematographer Xiaolu Guo 郭小橹; Length 74 minutes. Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 October 2018.
Gurinder Chadha is the director most famous for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), though she made a splash with her first film Bhaji on the Beach (1993). She’s a British filmmaker, born in a British colony (as Kenya was) and who has lived in London for almost the entirety of her life, and is particularly good at locating stories of characters with South-East Asian backgrounds within a diverse cultural milieu that never feels suffocatingly white (as it sometimes can in other middle-class middle-brow British films). That said, of course, racism is a persistent issue in the background of her stories, and we still see those who are intent on denying the multi-ethnic nature of British society, like the skinheads in this latest film.
It’s rare to see a film this earnest and dorky, but it’s honestly very hard to take against it, however much I found it teeth-grittingly cheesy at times. The thing is, it takes its premise — the real life story of Javed (Viveik Kalra, based on the screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor), a young Pakistani kid growing up in Luton discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen and finding connections to his own life — and plays it completely straight, without laughing at it or making jokes (though people certainly make fun of him). The first act sets up 1987 school life, complete with British versions of the classic American high school cliques, dominated by the sounds of the post-punk synth-based new romanticism of the mid- to late-80s, such that when our protagonist is handed some Bruce cassettes and starts listening to them, the music is quite different from what we’ve heard thus far. It even puts the lyrics up on screen to emphasise the effect, as he runs through a storm to the sounds of “The Promised Land” with back-projections on the council house walls: this is Gurinder Chadha’s version of total cinema, undoubtedly. It sorta works too, though I think I’d find it even more affecting to watch this on a plane, or on the couch when sick (that’s not a diss; it’s just one of those kinds of films, really comforting at a base soul level). The standout actor here turns out to be Javed’s Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who turns him onto Bruce, and whom I’d have been pleased to see a lot more of.
CREDITS Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor (based on his memoir Greeting from Bury Park); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Viveik Kalra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell; Length 117 minutes. Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Tuesday 13 August 2019.
Carol Morley has been a key creative figure in British cinema for over a decade, having made such films as the exemplary hybrid documentary Dreams of a Life (2011), as well as The Falling (2014), a film tinged with as much mystery as her latest film, a US-UK co-production set in New Orleans.
People really dislike this film, it turns out, having looked up some reviews while forming my thoughts, and that really surprises me for some reason. There are aspects of the film that feel to me somewhat over-written at times, the way all those little images and sonic clues come back full circle to gain meaning within the plot later on, not to mention that boldly astrophysical subtext — cinematic strategies that certainly aren’t always pulled off with any great success in other films. And yet I think director/writer Carol Morley has a really strong feeling for atmosphere, in evoking memory and trauma, an almost spiritual presence that exists beyond the frame. At times it comes across somewhat like a woman’s take on Twin Peaks in that sense, of unsolved mysteries, a woman spiralling out of control, and rather less like, say, the noirish-ness of Destroyer, another recent film about a veteran woman detective coming apart. Also, Patricia Clarkson is a wonderful actor, perhaps the closest that the North American cinema has to Isabelle Huppert. So, yes, I rather liked this film.
CREDITS Director/Writer Carol Morley (based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis); Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Patricia Clarkson, Toby Jones; Length 109 minutes. Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 31 March 2019.
Another recent filmmaking talent who straddles both American and British film cultures is Desiree Akhavan, who was born and brought up in the States, but lives in London. Her film work feels very US-centric, but she’s also made a British television show, The Bisexual, which like her films explores queer sexual identities.
I’ve been waiting a long time for a Chloë Grace Moretz film I could really get behind (she’s done some good work in some sub-par films), and this film goes some way further towards proving she’s an actor with range — here never better than when she’s just quietly observing. That said, the actor I want to see more work by is Forrest Goodluck, who plays one of the misfits at a Christian ‘gay conversion’ camp to which Moretz’s title character is sent following a rather telegraphed same-sex coming-of-age story. However, in a sense, everyone there is a misfit, and that does seem to be the point the film is working towards.
This is quite tonally different from director Desiree Akhavan’s first film Appropriate Behavior (2014), for though it has moments of levity, it’s mostly quite a quiet reflective film about traumatic events. I was expecting more anger, given the subject matter, but it’s set in the early-90s and so takes on a tone of, if not nostalgia, a sort of hazy ruefulness about past life events. It’s a film about trauma from the point-of-view of someone who has (presumably at great length) started to move past it.
CREDITS Director Desiree Akhavan; Writers Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth); Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle; Length 90 minutes. Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 9 September 2018.
British director Clio Barnard has been exploring local stories, primarily ones that deal with working-class lives, since her debut feature The Arbor (2010) and then again with The Selfish Giant (2013).
I think Clio Barnard is a very talented director, and I think there are sequences here that are beautifully edited and put together: nicely shot, good use of sound and aural cues, and of course with the acting of Ruth Wilson (who is superb). It’s another film set in the North English countryside — not so much God’s Own Country as The Levelling (or indeed Barnard’s earlier films, though they were more urban I feel) — but here the glowering oppressive sky really is that, a crushing force on everyone. Like that latter film, it deals with poisoned relationships between fathers and daughters (I think now of Sunset Song too in that respect), and it doesn’t take very many flashbacks for it to become clear just what that is going to turn out to be. In fact, it’s obvious from the very first second of the very first flashback just where this particular arc is tending, but the way it’s developed in a melodramatic final act seems somewhat heavy-handedly literal. However, the acting (by Wilson, mainly), and the sheer filmmaking nous is for me enough to carry the film. Sure it’s dark and it moves lugubriously, but it is a properly cinematic film.
CREDITS Director/Writer Clio Barnard; Cinematographer Adriano Goldman; Starring Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean; Length 89 minutes. Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 28 February 2018.
There are an increasing number of women directing films in all genres within British cinema, which are getting ever wider releases across the country, and indeed at the end of this week (30 August) there appear to be three British films directed by women getting a cinematic release. Been So Long was made for Netflix (albeit premiered at the London Film Festival last year), who have a quite different model of film distribution, gaining in popularity — though the nature of Netflix’s business means they don’t release the viewer numbers on its films. The musical is a somewhat less travelled genre in British filmmaking, and it’s unlikely that this film will change that, but it’s an interesting exercise all the same.
In many ways this does seem like a good fit for Netflix: it is filled with big, brashly enjoyable performances by actors who manage to command the screen and make everything seem sweet, even as their characters are doing utterly idiotic things that beggar belief. Even George MacKay manages to make likeable a tangential character (a street drinker with some borderline mental health issues that manifest in misplaced aggression) who could easily be excised from the film altogether. I mean, if you like musicals then you know that a bit of heightened emotion expressed via song, choreographed dance and carefully-chosen colour palettes can paper over a myriad of contrivances at a plot level — whether it’s overly knowing and precocious child actors, love stories that take strange turns in kebab shops, interracial hook-ups on buses and park benches, and inexplicably popular estate pubs. But whatever else happens, there are those actors, all of whom are so very likeable — and seem so grounded in identifiably London types — that I’m inclined to forgive everything.
CREDITS Director Tinge Krishnan; Writer Ché Walker (based on his musical and play); Cinematographer Catherine Derry; Starring Michaela Coel, Arinze Kene, George MacKay; Length 100 minutes. Seen at Rich Mix, London, Monday 15 October 2018.
There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.
This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.
CREDITS Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes. Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.
Like so many in the region, Libya is a country with a troubled recent history, and so there has been little filmmaking as such from there. The documentary I cover in the review below is therefore primarily a British production by a British woman director (whose father was from Libya), and takes an unusual subject matter: women involved in sport. In that respect, it recalls for me the recent Canadian-Palestinian documentary Speed Sisters (2015).
Like a lot of documentaries this was a labour of love over many years with a lot of disparate sources of funding, but it remains a portrait of modern Libya as told through the stories of women on a Libyan football team (not really the national squad, exactly, because there’s little enough recognition for women’s football, but they might as well be). The strength of the movie — again like a lot of documentaries — is in its subjects, who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from well-educated middle-class daughters of prominent conservative families, to ones from various parts of the country covering differing ethnicities and backgrounds. One even hails from what is now a ghost town, from which its entire population was displaced due to conflict.
They are united by sport, perhaps, but maybe more by the desire for a different future, and of course we see a bit of the country’s political turmoil in the background — online images of conservative clerics, news footage of fighting and fires and revolutionary change — while the intertitles date the footage from the “Libyan revolution” (in this case, the civil war of 2011), but the film remains focused on the women. They express themselves on the field, and in rides with the director in their cars, where they sing along and eat ice cream and generally get to speak out more freely. That’s perhaps part of what the title is alluding to: this isn’t just about football (in fact, it’s not until quite late in the film that we get to see them actually competing), but about women’s liberation more generally, a struggle that’s ever continuing, especially in Libya.
CREDITS Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes. Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.
As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.