Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult: British Film Today

15 10 2009


Alan Parker famously once said that he would leave the UK if Peter Greenaway were allowed to make another film. This was back in the Eighties, when threatening to leave the country was something of a pastime for the rich and famous, but it did reflect a frustration that Parker and others had about the direction in which the British film industry was going.

We make too many artsy films, they argued, the kind of films that confuse the man in the street and do little to promote the growth of the domestic industry. Instead we should be focusing on lively and entertaining cinema, films that pull in the crowds and tell a good story well.

Since then the British film industry has too often operated with these extremes in mind, unable to commit to one or the other. For much of the Nineties and Noughties we saw, on the one hand, self-consciously populist films that proved to be far from popular at the box office and, on the other, serious films that didn’t quite have the balls to take any serious risks artistically. Despite occasional successes (The Talented Mr. Ripley, My Summer of Love, Trainspotting, Ratcatcher) the overall mood was one of gloom, compromise and squalor.

Imagine my surprise then, when coming back to the UK in August after almost a year away, to find the country in the midst of a mini cinematic boom and myself with a whole lot of catching up to do. Ingmar Bergman in his later years reportedly watched every metre of new Swedish film that was released, and I found myself trying to do the same with DVDs, tracking down as many of the key works of this new British renaissance as I could find.

So what’s been happening here in the UK over the last, say, three years? Well for a start, we’ve been making some very good films indeed. Two of the best – Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) – are directed by artists who started life in other disciplines, Corbijn as a photographer and McQueen as a creator of video installations. Happily both men have a keen cinematic sensibility. In Control Corbijn goes beyond the clichés of the rock biopic to give us an honest and at times harrowing portrait of the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. For his part, McQueen tells the story of Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers almost wordlessly, but with a palpable sense for the feel and smell and taste of things.



Also great are Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), of which you will have heard a lot recently, and Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated (2008). The first is in the much-criticised tradition of ‘kitchen sink’ drama, with teenage characters who call each other ‘cuntface’ and drink cheap cider in council flats. But, I would argue, as she tells her story Arnold leads us steadily away from genre conventions and towards themes that are pretty universal; betrayal, the process of growing up, and the need children have for a father.

Unrelated is almost a riposte to the kitchen sink drama, its characters being upper-middle-class-types holidaying in Tuscany. A directorial debut, it’s about as controlled, considered and effective a film as you could wish for. And, importantly, Hogg takes risks. Long takes! Fixed camera positions! A narrative that allows itself to unfold gradually! It’s quite unlike any other British film I’ve ever seen, which is surely A Good Thing.

On the more commercial side of things, we’ve had Frost/Nixon (2008), The International (2009) and, more recently, In The Loop. The latter is effectively a feature-length episode of Armando Iannucci’s TV show The Thick of It. Added to the usual mix of foul-mouthed political advisors and pusillanimous MPs are James Gandolfini and a storyline about the Anglo-American invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. It may not break much new ground cinematically but it is intelligent and very funny, which is more than can be said for most UK small-to-big-screen comedy adaptations (Holiday On The Buses anyone? Kevin and Perry Go Large?). It also contains probably my favourite movie line of the year; “difficult, difficult, lemon difficult” says a character at one point (as opposed to ‘easy peasy lemon squeezy’).

Peter Capaldi says a rude word or two 'In The Loop'

Peter Capaldi says a rude word or two 'In The Loop'

Also conquering the world recently was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), an astute blend of Hollywood and Bollywood genres, and proof that Britain (with a little help from India) can produce the odd quality blockbuster.  In the realm of documentary, Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously (2009) chronicled a rural Welsh world of library vans, sheepdog trials and cake-making and was, along the way, rather beautiful and beguiling.

And at the schlockier end of the spectrum, Donkey Punch (2008) told the story of a cruise on a Majorcan yacht gone badly wrong. It’s a tense, bloody thriller, and exactly the kind of film that this country has in the past had so much difficulty producing.

Back in Artsville, I should also mention two promising debuts: Duane Hopkins’ Better Things (2008) and Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s Helen (2009). Both are flawed but assured films from directors who have a very clear vision and, again in a break from the past, have been allowed to follow it through without interference.

This, it seems to me, is the key to the way things should be in the British film industry. The future lies not in self-consciously setting out to make one kind of film or another, but in diversity. Commercially there will always be a place for the odd costume drama or Harry Potter film but, beyond that, the truth is that it’s very difficult to second-guess what an audience will like. We can never compete with Hollywood on Hollywood’s terms, so let’s scatter our seeds far and wide, encourage as many different kinds of cinema as possible to grow in Britannia’s fertile fields and then, maybe then, we’ll have a few more hits and a few more beautiful misses on our hands.

The bad old days: 'Holiday On The Buses'

The bad old days: 'Holiday On The Buses'

After all, there’s a hell of a lot to be optimistic about in British cinema at moment. We have prolific directors like Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows making films on their own terms, sometimes hitting the mark and sometimes falling short, but always in interesting ways. We have Ken Loach’s ongoing partnership with screenwriter Paul Laverty, which has seen the veteran director do some of his best work. We have Terence Davies, hopefully back behind the camera after last year’s Of Time and The City. And we have Andrea Arnold, Duane Hopkins, Steve McQueen and scores of other talented new film-makers working on their second and third features.

And Peter Greenaway? Well, maybe he’s cooking up something interesting too.



2 responses

15 10 2009

Film making is fundamentally a lottery, as if people actually knew what made a film a success, you wouldn’t have the majority of films losing money, with the hits success paying for the many failures. William Goldman summed it up succinctly with his view of the film industry “No-one knows anything”. A good example of that is the fact that “Slumdog Millionaire was nearly released straight to DVD as Warner Bros doubted it would be a hit and the week before “Stuart Little” was released the studio nearly pulled it IIRC. Both films made an awful lot of money.
The UK’s fundamental flaw is we make very few films compared to Hollywood, so the successes naturally come far less frequently. We don’t have a studio system that can cope with the losses inbetween the rare big hits.

The International was a German production, not British.
“The Hunger” still at top looks like a scene from a Park Chan-wook movie!

16 10 2009

I agree. And with a (relatively) small film industry I’d argue that’s it’s especially important for the UK not to put all of its cinematic eggs into one basket. We should be making a diverse range of films, some of which will hit the mark and some of which will, unfortunately, fall on their arse. Who knew, after all, that the exploits of a Wensleydale-loving batchelor and his dog would win such a special place in the hearts of the nation? Or that a film about an Indian winning the lottery would have international appeal?

Rather belatedly funding bodies seemed to have woken up to this fact, which is good news. I remember a few years ago when every other British film seemed to be either a crap extension of a TV franchise (e.g. ‘Kevin & Perry Go Large’), a sub-Guy Ritchie gangster flick or an attempt to re-make ‘Calendar Girls’. Let’s not go back down that path.

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