Bad, predictable, boring British films...
Edited by Charli Canfer
A very alluring title, I know. You might think that is the brunt of my anger, you're wrong.
Now, I'm British, lived in Britain most of my life and there is a good chance I will live in Britain for the rest of it because what's better than grey clouds, oil soaked fish and chips and a weekend away in Rhyl? Despite this obvious love I have for this island, you'll be surprised to hear I'm not hugely patriotic nor do I feel represented by my country when it comes to sporting events, films or books etc. So, my argument/rant that will follow isn't: my country is letting me down for not making films that represent this country, it’s more: I know we have huge amounts of talent when it comes to our film industry so why the hell are British films so one dimensional these days?
Now, in the last year as an avid cinema goer I have experienced two British films: The Gentlemen (2019) and The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). Two marvelous films in their own right, entertaining, fun film-going. However, these two films offer a true examination of exactly the films that are now being made and are set in Britain: the London 'gangsta' flick, and the period piece which are usually adaptations of classic novels. Let me make this abundantly clear, I love these types of films and I don't want them to stop - no one can pass on an opportunity to watch Snatch(2000), no matter how many times you've watched it already. But, there must be more film variety besides these two, right?
One reason for this repetition is that British films tend to get caught up in the location or the culture, particularly stereotypes that will be recognisable to the wider audience producers are trying to reach. This logic can appear to be as over simplistic as ‘film based in the English countryside; we need cows. Film based in London, we need cocky cockneys and football hooligans’. Don't get me wrong, I love when films touch on culture, Goodfellas does it so purely just through slicing garlic ‘so thin it would liquify in the pan’ to demonstrate the immense respect an Italian-American gives ingredients even in prison. We might not have the same exact style of dedication to food in British culture but there are ways of showing ours. Watching three organised crime lords sit down and have a meal with one of their mothers at the middle of the night after comitting murder works brilliantly. No 'How's about a cuppa love before I go hav's a fight?' - there's more to this island than that.
You might be thinking ‘Isn’t this just the way it’s always been?’, but Britain has contributed to amazing pieces of cinema in the past. Admittedly, the very distant past - no not the 90's or the 80's, but further back still. When I say David Lean you’ll likely be thinking ‘Who?’ or perhaps remembering Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - though I wasn’t a fan of the former and thus didn’t watch the latter, I recognise these films as most people do
: classic epics. But how about this: David Lean also directed beautiful, simple British films. Shock, horror! He made two brilliantly crafted stories from original scripts: Brief Encounter (1945) and The Passionate Friends (1949). The stories were not about 'London Town' or moulded around a Dickens novel; they were stories about people, just as simple as that. British films never just centre around everyday people and everyday problems anymore. As I said, this was a long time ago. A little further down the line, we had The Ladykillers (1955). Set in London? Yes. Period piece? Sort of. But a film that revolved around it's characters and it's plot. London was hoisted as a back-drop to the story whilst the overflow of talent enacting an outrageous yet simple plot took centre stage and the film became a classic. So those were just three examples, but the early to mid 20th century was littered with great British flicks. Check out Sir Richard Attenborough produced films for example, made in the 60's and 70's on subjects such as kidnapping and murder - all great fun without lazy stereotypes.
I bet you're thinking 'talk about something in my lifetime or at least my fathers, you fossil!' but this is exactly my point: there’s only a handful I can mention. Starting with The Prestige (2006). *Gasp* It's a period piece! Yes, and also one of few British films made in the last twenty years that centres on the fascinating characters, not just 19th century London, where it was set. It was also based off a book, but it wasn't Jane Eyre or Dickens; as great as they are, can we please stop having different attempts at these films, and start adapting new British novels for the screen? The Prestige is an excellent film crafted by genius Christopher Nolan; the twists and the turns, and the concept of basing a film around magicians is truly wonderful. I want more, even if it has to be another British period piece.
I have to also mention Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy - now that's more like it. Wright broke through the glass wall of our expectation of what a British film is with this magnificently funny and entertaining trilogy (!) of films. Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World's End (2013) are instant British classics in which Wright manages to film action in a small British town, Sci-Fi in a quiet old village, and a zombie apocalypse on the outskirts of London respectively, and pulls it off brilliantly and oh so originally. Finally, one of my favourite British films Phantom Thread (2017) - made by American auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson - is a darkly twisted, stunning film based in and out of London. Visually exquisite and supremely acted, Phantom Thread is a period piece but that doesn't matter, what matters is that it is a story of a complicated and fascinating love story, simple yet riveting. These films I’ve mentioned are some of few British films of the 21st century that can be slotted into the category of fun, original character based films that don't involve 'gangsta's' or corsets. How depressing.
Now that my list is drying up, I hope you’ll agree that not all hope is lost and we have in fact had some great films made in Britain, some even very recently after all. Like my previous point about the lack of modern examples of good culturally fresh British films, it doesn’t escape me that almost all the films I have mentioned are specifically English. England, or rather London, has become a synecdoche for Britain. We’ve all heard people doing an appalling cockney accent and calling it a ‘British’ one and part of that mass oversimplification from outsiders comes from screen representation. This ‘tiny island’ is made up of four uniquely brilliant and beautiful countries and we need to see them all. That being said, even when the film industry does focus on England, for some reason we just don't like setting very normal stories in this country unless they have some sort of over emphasised link to the location, one familiar to non-British audiences. Instead, we should be demonstrating how much diversity exists just within one of our countries. Why can't we have Blue Valentine (2010) set in Liverpool or ‘Two Billboards Outside Leicestershire’? Why is it that we so rarely see England outside of London in films; the small towns, the northern cities? A love story set in Manchester between two musicians - I'm in. A heist film set in Lancashire - I'm in. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
It’s only fair to mention to filmmakers who are not part of this trend. Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Now those are two juggernaut filmmakers but guess what? They are old, as in way past the typical age of retirement for careers outside the film industry. It happens to us all but what a shame it had to happen to them. Repeat. They are old. Ken Loach made his feature debut in 1967 and Mike started four years later. They're relics of British cinema and although they keep directing masterpieces and buckling the trend, no young filmmakers seem to be following in their path.
Here's one of my strongest arguments now: British talent - of which we have plenty, more than enough potential for a mass of fresh British original films. Forget the British actors we've seen for decades that everyone knows, film buff or not. I’m thinking of two relatively young British actors in particular: Daniel Kaluuya and Callum Turner. If you like cinema, you know these two actors and woah, what a talented pair. The last time I heard Daniel Kaluuya voice a British accent in a film, he was opposite Rowan Atkinson in a Johnny English sequel (which I secretly love). Give that man a damn script which doesn't require him to cross the Atlantic. And for the love of God don't make Callum Turner into another Colin Firth. Consider too, this pair of British actresses: Karen Gillan and Florence Pugh - now these two can act. Gillan, the last time we all heard her Scottish accent was the TV show Doctor Who, she has starred as a Scot in a film since, but it never reached my cinema and I'm sure you guys haven't seen it either. Set a thriller in Glasgow and cast her in it. Now onto Florence Pugh, she possibly has the busiest agent around at the moment after her stellar performances playing Americans in Midsommar (2019) and Little Women (2019). Florence Pugh is brilliant and I think I've made my point now, let’s hear her native tongue in something original and British. As for talent behind the camera, the directors are great (more on that later) but the technicians, production designers, costume designers are to such a high standard. The UK is an anomaly, it's such a small spot on the map but it's brimming with talent. Let’s use those actors to tell some real contemporary stories of the people.
Now it would be easy (and tempting) to blame the USA, however the fact is that our best British filmmakers love to make films in America. Christopher Nolan, possibly the top of the pile of all living British directors at the moment in terms of consistency and scale, has only made two feature films primarily set in Britain - two! Also, I have a feeling that he only made his first feature Following (1998) in London because he was unknown and living in London at the time i.e it was the easy option rather than a desire. According to a number of sources, the man has a mug of Earl Grey on set everyday; he drinks the very definition of Britain for Christ sake. So why doesn't he make more films here?
Other filmmakers that come to mind are Danny Boyle and Lynne Ramsay. Oh how fortunate we are to be presented with their films. Mr Danny Boyle, could have been a Sir but he turned down the offer. Mr Olympics, didn't he nail it? The sad fact is though, he is inconsistent with his desire to represent Britain in films: for every Trainspotting (1996) there is The Beach (2000) , or for every Millions (2004), there is Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Oh what the hell, how can I complain about Slumdog Millionaire? And that being said, Danny does at least keep eventually returning to tell British stories so perhaps we’ll let him off. Onto Lynne Ramsay. The issue with Lynne is that she doesn't make enough films, period. No fault of her own though, she demands creative freedom when making a film and she'd rather back out then surrender, fair play to her. But the fact is Lynne's last two feature films have both been set in America, her last film based in Britain was Morvern Callar, released in 2002. Yikes.
Now enough of my assault on how America is stealing all of our good things...
It seems the rest of the world has overtaken Britain with entertaining, juicy, fresh and original films. South Korea, Parasite (2019) great film? Yes. But part of me thinks it was only a great film because it gave us all something in the cinema that we hadn't received in some time from films, the element of surprise. I never knew what was going to happen next, what a thrill.
Asghar Farhadi, wow, what an IMDB that man has. Two of his Iranian films: The Salesman (2016) and A Separation (2011) have won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. So my question would be this, is Iran simply more cinematic than us? Is it that they have more interesting stories to tell? No, because every country is filled with potential film ideas. My answer for Britain’s lack of stories is laziness.
Here is what I imagine has been going on in British filmmakers offices:
Producer #1: What shall we make next?
Producer #2: How about a fresh spin on Shakespeare? This time, MacBeth shall triumph!
Now, you won't know this because well, why would you? But I myself am as guilty as anyone in believing that cinema exists only in America or on some other, more interesting island. My first two short films and my first feature film script are all set in America. I know what you're thinking, this whole way through I've dragged you through this promising a better option to the one we have now. Yet I have made a small contribution to its downfall. But alas, I have changed, I've seen the light, I have been working for months on two feature length films based in England, not London, both in English towns. They are not adaptations, heck one is even a contemporary flick and the destination is not at all mentioned. Both stories are centred around characters who are not defined by their location, and are the central focus of the film. And both are solely original and could have easily and more acceptably been set in rural America. But I resisted, and it's been a revolution. Maybe you'll never see them, I don't know, I hope so. But I will strive for it now because we don't need America to tell us stories, we have our own.
We have so much to comment on, such an island full of culture, different accents, different histories, idyllic locations and vastly different, fascinating and beautiful people. We are historically brilliant at storytelling, for Christ sake, Shakespeare! Shakespeare! But let's not keep dwelling and let’s move on to new and original films with new and old talent. Let's not have every British film be a reminder of how to be a 'gangsta' or how to wear corsets or how we won the war. Let’s be unique, let's be bold, let's be original.
Welcome to the club,