Where do you go to find out what the current trends in British cinema are? How is British cinema reflecting current social and political concerns? What are its constraints and limitations? Well, the Edinburgh Film Festival now markets itself as the cutting edge showcase for the best of British films – in particular, the films shortlisted for the Michael Powell award for best new British feature film. Unfortunately, the Film Festival was also showing a retrospective of Michael Powell’s visually rich, formally inventive and sometimes slyly subversive films which cast a shadow over some of the less successful films on offer on the shortlist.
And the shortlist contains plenty of unedifying examples of a constant tendency: ‘copyitis’ – rehashing existing formulas to make rather desperate films. For instance, The Business, by Nick Love, is another in a long line of macho gangster flicks. It’s primarily intended to be consumed late at night on DVD accompanied by excessive amounts of lager so that its young male audience won’t notice the dodgy script served up to them. Whatever life existed in this new Brit genre has probably been beaten out of it by now.
The copy of the 1980s post-colonial movie is represented by Wah Wah, the directorial debut of Richard E Grant. Starring Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne and Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy), Wah Wah is an autobiographical coming of age story set at the end of the 1960s on the eve of independence in Swaziland. A 14 year old boy is caught in the crossfire as his parents’ marriage falls apart. After a stint at boarding school he returns to find that his father has a new lover, an unconventional American, but he’s also turning into an alcoholic because of the impact of independence on his status. Wah Wah is one of those full blooded performances that has a gently engaging script laden with incident. There are the usual bed-hopping antics and scandal among the ex-pats and satirical digs at stuffed imperial shirts. It’s thankfully free of the elegiac nostalgia of some of the 1980s TV/films but it’s also typically too modest in its ambitions.
Stoned has that 1980s feeling too – pacy, stylish, a bit empty and over-eroticised. It’s a lovingly recreated and mostly decorative interpretation of the final days of guitarist Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. It’s directed by Stephen Woolley, who also produced the flashy 1960s period pics, Scandal and BackBeat. The deathbed revelation that Jones’s builder killed him, fuelled by drugs, booze and sexual jealousy, forms the centrepiece of the film. Unfortunately the story rarely sticks to fully exploring the social and psychological dynamic of this unique relationship.
For the real thing of humour, humanity, incisive commentary and individualised characterisation I saw Tickets. The film, directed by three famous directors – the Italian director Olmi (Tree of Wooden Clogs), Kiarostami (see last month’s review) and Ken Loach – concerns three different stories and characters on a train. Loach’s story of Celtic fans coping with the dilemma of impoverished Albanian refugees who may or may not have stolen one of their mates’ train tickets has a wonderful rousing finish.
There seems to be a trend towards low budget DIY digital filmmaking also in the cinéma vérité Dogme tradition – a direct response to the impoverished resources for current British art cinema. Shortlisted film Song of Songs is the debut of Josh Appignanesi which features the impressive actress Natalie Press (Summer of Love). It’s an intense tale about a young Jewish woman who returns from Israel to care for her dying mother and tries to bring her estranged brother back into the fold. What ensues is a story that tackles the corrupting force of fundamentalist faith on the psyche, dark troubling visions of repressed sexuality defining the brother and sister relationship. But it may be too cryptic and allusive in form to be truly satisfying – although it did win a special commendation from the Michael Powell award jury.
The most controversial film of the festival and shortlist was The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, by 24 year old Thomas Clay. It is unusual in being a British film that was also entered in competition at Cannes this year. Academically gifted Robert Carmichael lives in a drab town, populated by lost, rootless and drug-dependent kids. The background is the incessant drone of TV footage of the Iraq war. An assumed rape by these misogynist lads at a drug den takes place while the soundtrack mixes in and out from this news footage. The cinematic look of the film deserves commendation alone and the director is a talent to look out for. The reason for the controversy is a sensationalist graphic rape scene which was so horrific it heralded a walkout by some members of the press. From reading the critics one would believe that the director was shallow and cynical but this film has a very serious intent – it simply misfires during its closing moments. Using sexual violence as a metaphor from which to point up the issues of inhuman war is a device fraught with danger for the progressive filmmaker.
The film that won both the Audience award and Michael Powell award was Tsotsi, by Gavin Hood, based on a novel by Athol Fugard. It’s an urgent, passionate and sometimes sentimental tale of a young black gang leader in the South African townships who rediscovers his humanity. After a car-jacking gone wrong, he learns to his horror that a small baby is in the back of the car. He decides to keep the child, finding ways to get it cared for and deceiving his increasingly disillusioned gang members about its existence. This redemptive tale was originally set in the colonial and apartheid 1950s and the fact that the story could be so easily translated to modern day South Africa speaks volumes for the current situation there.
But I am afraid that a strict diet of all these British films – sometimes overly modest, unoriginal, underrealised or too compromised for the US market – had me fleeing to see a French movie for respite. The Beat That My Heart Skipped – a reworking of James Toback’s Fingers – made my heart skip too. For more, see the review next month.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot