The glue binding the 11 choices showing in “Contemporary Films From Britain” is, indeed, contemporaneity. There’s not a costume drama on the list, and none of what Stephen Frears once described as “the rattling of teacups.” Despite the vaunted modernity of the brash new British cinema, however, nostalgia seeps inexorably into the frame time after time. The picture that emerges is not of a country freeing itself from the shackles of the past in accordance with Tony Blair’s dream of a “Cool Britannia,” but of a people succored by what’s familiar and consoling, even if it takes the form of stylized brutality.
Indulgently vicious, Gangster No. 1 is less a thriller than a character study of a psychotic London fat cat (Malcolm McDowell)—all “farkin’ “ this and “you cunt” that—who looks back to ‘68, when he was hired as a soldier by the suave ruling thug (David Thewlis, miscast) and betrayed him. Paul Bettany, who plays the younger version of the McDowell character as a phlegmatic blond prince, impersonates Get Carter-era Michael Caine, but he has none of Caine’s humanity. The extended flashback meanwhile teems with miniskirted dolly birds, tinny pop music, Italian suits, and salt-of-the-earth villains. Ostentatiously directed by Paul McGuigan (The Acid House), Gangster No. 1 is nonetheless one of the ballsiest entries in the recent crop of slavishly derivative British crime dramas.
The leathery aura of old soccer lore permeates the Billy Elliot-ish There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, as do Lancastrian stereotypes and hackneyed magical realism. Here, a jug-eared school footballer must overcome bullying, domestic misery, and shyness to win the cup, a new dad, and the girl. Featuring a top-notch cast (Robert Carlyle, Gina McKee, Ray Winstone, and newcomer Lewis McKenzie), John Hay’s well-meaning kids’ film oozes as many clichés as Gangster No. 1, though this expat found it transfixing. Across the Pennines, in Yorkshire, foot-and-mouth disease brings an apocalyptic mood to the Brontë-esque landscape of The Darkest Light, presciently written and evocatively codirected by Full Monty scribe Simon Beaufoy.
During the ‘60s, many a lovely art deco Odeon was tragically converted into a bingo hall in Britain. This makes House!’s celebration of the popular pastime of middle-aged and elderly women curiously ironic—no matter that the owner (Freddie Jones) of the beleaguered bingo emporium alludes to his salad days as a vendor of art-house glories. Intermittently poignant, if garishly directed by Julian Kemp, it is outdone in its singsongy Welshness by Very Annie Mary, a lively vehicle for Rachel Griffiths as a onetime opera prodigy whose dreams have been stifled by her domineering widowed father (Jonathan Pryce). Director Sara Sugarman’s inventive, Dylan Thomas-influenced comedy incorporates a sweet Full Monty homage briefly enacted by a gang of small boys. Meanwhile, William Marsh’s update of Martin Amis’s Dead Babies reveals that—as with the film of Amis’s The Rachel Papers—the source material has passed its sell-by date. Adapted with utmost fidelity to the scabrous 1975 novel, it wholly fails to transcend its bleak post-hippie perspective.
Northern Ireland is represented by playwright Conor McPherson’s tame directorial debut, Saltwater, about Irish men negotiating romance, and Scotland by Gregory’s Two Girls, Bill Forsyth’s tardy sequel to 1980’s sublime Gregory’s Girl. Bohemian Glaswegians in Camden Town feature in This Year’s Love, an unpleasant, faux-cynical romantic saga by David Kane that squanders Catherine McCormack, Ian Hart, and Jennifer Ehle.
But also from Glasgow comes One Life Stand, a truly fresh and strange movie about ordinary people written, directed, digitally photographed, and edited by May Miles Thomas. Somberly shot in black-and-white, this micro-budgeted drama revolves around Maureen Carr’s astonishingly intimate performance as a weary working-class divorcée struggling to prevent her vain teenage son from being exploited as a gigolo, even as she herself is sucked into enterprise culture as a phone-line tarot-reader. The mesmerizing sequence in which she returns home after being sexually abused by her boss/boyfriend, lies down on her son’s bed, where she is strafed by an ornamental strobe, and then confronts him with his moral self-deception is charged with anguish. Like Ratcatcher, One Life Stand is a peal of hope for Scottish—if not Anglocentric—cinema.