Changing the Guard: The Festival of New British Cinema” is full of scruffy orphan films—smarter, sexier, and livelier than almost all the overblown, self-congratulatory Amerindie and foreign fare currently showing around town. (The Angelika has reached a new middlebrow low with Cookie’s Fortune, Shakespeare in Love, and Life Is Beautiful clogging all six screens.)
The New British series, on the other hand, has Mojo, Jez Butterworth’s evocation of the pre-Beatles, gangster-operated London rock scene, with an electrifying ensemble cast that includes Harold Pinter as the most evil mobster of them all. There’s also Andrew Kotting’s wildly inventive Gallivant in which the filmmaker documents a three-month, 6000-mile trip he took around the coasts of England, Wales, and Scotland with his remarkably energetic 90-year-old grandmother and his seven-year-old daughter who suffers from the rare life-threatening neurological disorder, Joubert’s syndrome. Gallivant, which is often hilarious, occasionally melancholy, and always profoundly aware of the fragility of life, combines British history, family history, film history, geology, semiology, and tourism into a nonfiction comedy of manners. Kotting owes something to Ross McElwee and Peter Greenaway, but he’s a more adventurous and humane filmmaker than either. And his grandmother could give a lesson to Charlie Rose on how to make good conversation with strangers.
More conventional, but surprisingly seductive, Antonia Bird’s Face is a London underworld genre flick with a political edge and a wrenching performance by Robert Carlyle as a former activist who’s fallen into a life of crime. Carlyle, a runty actor with enormous range and intelligence, has the permanently wounded eyes and self-mocking mouth of a romantic hero. In comedies like The Full Monty, he turns up the mockery and plays around with a cock-of-the-walk strut that’s so puffed up it demands to be deflated. Here, however, he projects a barely controlled fury and barely remembered tenderness that’s riveting, and he makes the character’s hatred of authority a more complicated matter than is evidenced in the script. If Face were to play on PBS’s Mystery, it would most likely garner the kind of rave reviews given to Prime Suspect. I’m thinking of series TV because Carlyle’s performance warrants a prequel and a sequel both.
But instead, Face, like Gallivant and Mojo, has languished on the festival circuit with no prospects of U.S. distribution. The New British cinema has turned out at least half a dozen equally interesting films in recent years, most of which have gone nowhere, not even within Britain. The most extraordinary of them all, Peter Mullan’s Orphans, which played last month to a highly appreciative audience in the New Directors/New Films festival, was rejected as uncommercial by the company that helped fund it, Britain’s Channel Four Films (supposedly a class act), and would have disappeared entirely had it not won four major prizes at the Venice Film Festival.
Mullan’s short film Fridge plays in the New British series with Urban Ghost Story, Genevieve Jolliffe’s rough but still quite fascinating merging of the social-realist and horror genres. (A single mom, besieged by loan sharks and social-service workers, tries to get help for her teenage daughter who may or may not be a poltergeist.) Made two years before Orphans, Fridge, a hellish glimpse of some marginal Glasgow citizens, only sketches the outlines of Mullan’s project, which is to push traditional British kitchen-sink realism toward the expressionism of Scorsese or Cassavetes. Orphans depicts four bereaved sibs (three men and a woman) acting out their grief over their mother’s death in various, but mostly angry, ways over the course of a single night. The film, which resembles another nightmarish descent into darkness, Scorsese’s After Hours, is particularly powerful in suggesting that the anger that seems to afflict the entire male population of Glasgow is the expression of a lifelong sense of abandonment and loss.
In an interview in the April issue of Sight and Sound, Mullan, who won the best actor award at Cannes last year for his work in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, critiques British social-realist giants like Loach whose shadows loom large over most of the directors in this show. “Almost all social-realist films revert to melodrama if and when it suits them. Take My Name Is Joe: a young lad throws himself out a window with a rope around his neck, thus all sins are absolved… It’s absurd. It achieves nothing except moving an audience to tears… If you listen to the soundtrack for My Name Is Joe, it tells you clearly that this is funny and this is serious—it’s incredibly manipulative and very effective.” Mullan is a triple threat—a director, an actor, and a film critic—and if no American distributor picks up Orphans, then I hope they all drown in a sea of Miramax envy.
Also recommended in the New British series: Shane Meadows energetic no-budgeter Small Time playing with his even funnier short film, Where’s the Money Ronnie?, and the program of BFI New Directors Shorts, which includes early work by three extremely promising directors: Richard Kwietniowski, who made Love and Death on Long Island; Carine Adler, who made Under the Skin; and Lynne Ramsay, whose first feature is expected out sometime this year. Adler’s Fever, a map for Under the Skin, stars Katrin Cartlidge as a neurotic young woman who has a problem with her mother that leads to a problem connecting sex and love. The astonishing Cartlidge is all raw nerves, and the film has some of the best girl talk ever to make it to the big screen.