A 1000 word article on the current crop of more art-house friendly British films…
The British film critic Jonathan Romney, writing in the Independent on Sunday about Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and Terence Davies’ ‘Of Time and the City’, recently remarked upon a renaissance of the British art film. Described in his own words as a phenomenon that was “endangered, presumed lost”, it’s made a surprising comeback with a series of intriguing and complex films, including the two Romney mentions, but also Joanna Hogg’s ‘Unrelated’, Andrea Arnold’s Dogme ’95-inspired ‘Red Road’ and her latest, ‘Fish Tank’, Duane Hopkins’ ‘Better Things’ and the more recent ‘Helen’, directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.
Each of these films was made on a comparatively miniscule budget, even as far as British film making goes. This no doubt reflects the significant risk involved in making films such as these; they’re hardly safe commercial propositions. But consider the kind of budgets given to more mainstream British films of recent years. The widely panned ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men’ cost £1.8m to produce, yet scraped about a third back in box office receipts. Unless you count the safe bets that are Danny Boyle or Richard Curtis films, even those British films with fair commercial backing and potential wide releases are underperforming, or maybe audiences are just wise enough to realise rubbish when they discover it. These quality, esoteric British art films are operating with much fewer resources. ‘Of Time and the City’, a celebration of Liverpool’s history and the first Terence Davies film in a decade, cost under £500,000. ‘Helen’ managed to pull together a budget of just over £250,000 thanks to regional funding bodies. This raises questions about the nature of public funding; should subsidies be given to films that might financially succeed or those that have artistic merit? Perhaps it’s a balance that’s yet to be happily met.
This wave of art films owes a huge debt to British social realism, the genre that our domestic cinema does best. Think of the rich tradition that extends as far back as the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s, the cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh over the past four decades almost and the more recent films of Lynne Ramsay and Shane Meadows. These films documented the real lives of ordinary people and charted the socio-economic history of the UK and its political changes. These new films are doing this too; whether it’s the astute examination of the values of the Tuscan-holidaying middle classes in ‘Unrelated’ or the damning indictment of government policy and state security in Northern Ireland in ‘Hunger’. It’s difficult to imagine these projects being undertaken without the heritage of social realism in the UK. Leigh has satirised the manners of the British middle class in several films, whilst Alan Clarke tackled Northern Irish politics in ‘Elephant’.
What differentiates many of these films from their predecessors though is their devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema. This in part lies in the educational and artistic background of many of these film makers. Steve McQueen is a Turner Prize-winning visual artist. Sam Taylor Wood, who directed the upcoming John Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’ is an acclaimed conceptual artist. These film makers are making films with a completely different perspective, using their own artistic backgrounds in other fields to pursue unique agendas, whilst still making films that at least thematically refer back to the likes of Leigh and Loach. It’s this artistic background that also allows these film makers to make the most of the modest budgets allocated to their films. ‘Hunger’ features a single, unbroken shot that lasts the best part of twenty minutes, which would be unthinkable in a more mainstream film, whilst also using a powerful split screen scene with intense police brutality on one hand and the sombre reflection of a policeman on the other.
Perhaps the most curious example from this current wave is ‘Helen’. The roots of ‘Helen’ were in the short ‘Joy’, which involved the same premise. A teenage girl (Joy) has gone missing and a classmate (Helen) is asked to impersonate her for a televised reconstruction. Helen then begins to absorb aspects of Joy’s personality and almost seamlessly slips into Joy’s place, treated by her family and boyfriend almost as if she’s Joy. Amongst the entire crop, it’s probably the most ambitious film and by the same measure, probably the most infuriating and inconsistent. Clearly inspired by Antonioni, from the mystery in park, never resolved, that refers to ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening skyline shot that almost feels stolen wholesale from ‘The Eclipse’, it’s a film that wants to take risks but ultimately overreaches, often requiring the viewer to suspend his/her disbelief to some extent and to withstand some erratic acting and dialogue, which may be deliberate. Who knows? Still, for all the aesthetical intensity of ‘Hunger’, it’s ‘Helen’ that first hits us as a truly original and vivid piece of film making.
Also unique about these films is that they’re mostly the work of first-time film makers, or at least relative novices at their profession. ‘Hunger’, ‘Helen’, ‘Red Road’, ‘Better Things’ and ‘Unrelated’ are all first features. ‘Fish Tank’ will be Arnold’s second feature, whilst Terence Davies, director of ‘Of Time and the City’ might be a veteran director but has found his career stalled on numerous occasions because of his reputation as a personal film maker of ‘difficult’ (read: commercially unviable) projects. Film makers often learn about film making by making films. It takes several films for film makers to hit their stride, to find a successful formula, to find the confidence to make their masterpieces. This generation of film makers have hit the ground running, approaching their first features with an exceptional level of confidence and a desire to make original films from the start of their careers.
Working with low budgets undoubtedly helps. There are fewer demands upon them to deal with commercial expectations. These films are not designed to turn a profit but to operate as prestigious features that might, with a dash of luck, succeed at the box office. Yet so far, the films mentioned have performed moderately, with none of them breaking out and exceeding expectations. Inevitably, these film makers will probably be allocated larger budgets and possibly tempted to working in Hollywood, although there’s no guarantees of this. These film makers clearly want to work on their own terms and dictate the direction of their films without studio interference. They are responsible for an exciting time for British film and one hopes that these film makers live up to the promise of their debut features.