Apr 25, 2014

British Film: What Went Wrong?

I’m not remotely patriotic, and actively try to avoid the term “Brit Film” when reviewing or generally talking about current, or soon-to-be released films, simply because it suggests we should be proud as a collective that these films came from this place. What does bother me is that the general area in which I live and make films (the UK) is devoid of creativity (and has generally been so since the 70s it seems), and films from the US still dominate globally, both independently and on a larger scale. The domination of the global film landscape isn’t my only gripe. In fact the general lack of innovation is what bothers me most. Films from Hong Kong, Thailand, Iran, and most of Europe, still have this artistically progressive attitude. So why not here? When did British filmmakers stop trying?
I’m not suggesting British Films don’t get made (though if you look at the numbers, the amount produced each year dropped substantially thanks to Thatcher). And I’m not suggesting they don’t get made well (‘Skyfall’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’ were recent examples of how well big and small features produced in the UK can excel). My main focus is that British Films have become somewhat stagnant and uninventive. The British Film Industry is only known around the world for creating studio-sized films and small Social Realist films. It’s a well known fact that the British Film Industry had it’s heyday in the 60s/early 70s. British Film had been a force to be reckoned with from the dawn of cinema, through the Ealing Studio years, and the hope created by the 1960s fell flat during the 1970s as the money dried up (films were made in the UK and actually admired around the world up until this point). The final film to really be independent, unique, innovative, truly British (and NOT SOCIAL REALIST) was ‘Withnail & I’ – a film which signalled a change in times, the fall of optimism, and the inevitable crumbling reality, as was happening at the time it was set, and the time it was made.
Obviously we see a great British Film immerge now and then, but they happen so infrequently that it can never be said ‘the industry’ is alive, or that innovation is alive and well. Ben Wheatley is literally the only director around who has consistently made solid, unique, genre-blending films (though not making enough of an impact nationwide, or even internationally to be considered as starting a movement). Don’t get me wrong, films like ‘This Is England’, ‘Tyrannosaur’, ‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘Fish Tank’ are all incredible films, but they hardly break the mould. Below are a handful of films (post-‘Withnail & I’) which have not been Social Realist / have offered us something different:
– Trainspotting
– Under the Skin
– Kill List
– Hunger
– Submarine
– Weekend
– Naked
– 24 Hour Party People
 ‘Hunger’ (dir. Steve McQueen – see: ‘Shame’ & ’12 Years a Slave’) is the only major exception I can think of. A truly ground-breaking masterpiece that’ll stand the test of time. Unfortunately, films like this and ‘Under the Skin’ come very few and far between. ‘In the Loop’ is another good example (though it hardly set the world alight). Studio productions (‘Casino Royale’, ‘Hot Fuzz’, etc) make it seem like there is still a British film industry, but one big film a year, and a few bleak films set in Yorkshire, aren’t enough I’m afraid (Bond films have kept the big studio business afloat (for one or two larger studios), but is hardly something we should be ever so proud of). Mike Leigh and Ken Loach are still cropping up here and there, churning out solid films, but again, typical Social Realist output, lacking innovation – the key focus of this rant.
Other British filmmakers, such as Edgar Wright and Chris Nolan, have jumped ship, and the majority of directors who can make this move, don’t stay in the UK because the idea of making films here is dead. There’s no money to make bigger films, and if you want to make something unique, personal, or innovative you have to self-finance/crowdfund (and international audiences won’t see those films). Lower budget doesn’t always mean personal or original either – the majority of filmmakers starting out tend to gravitate towards genre movies or social realist dramas (I was guilty of the latter when first starting out).
Best British Films of All Time (that aren’t Social Realist):
– Don’t Look Now
– Lawrence of Arabia
– Distant Voices, Still Lives
– Brief Encounter
– Billy Liar
– Pretty much every Ealing Comedy (Man in the White Suit, Ladykillers)
– Pretty much every Nicolas Roeg film (Performance, Walkabout, Bad Timing)
– Long Good Friday
– Monty Python
– The 39 Steps
– Local Hero
– The Innocents
– If…
– Blow Up (though directed by an Italian)
– The Wicker Man
– Brazil
 This may come across as incredibly grumpy and/or cynical, but my point is that there is a problem/gap waiting to be solved/filled. We shouldn’t be wallowing, assuming it’s too late. Now’s the time to start a movement, because no one’s looking, no one expects it, and British Film desperately needs it!
*Inventive British Films which don’t count – ‘In Bruges’, ‘Moon’, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ – on the grounds that the directors/stars weren’t British, were shot somewhere other than the UK, or the funding came from elsewhere.

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