An eclectic mix of British cinema coming your way. Music influenced by Belle and Sebastian. Kid gangsters, and adult, kind of. There’s heartache in rural England. A lust for life.. And a rather amusing funeral – with zero weddings. Even the Queen herself turns up. Let’s run along like good boys and girls.
Bugsy Malone – Alan Parker (1976)
Writer-director Alan Parker’s feature debut, Bugsy Malone, is a pastiche of American movies. A musical gangster comedy set in 1929, featuring prohibition, showgirls, and gang warfare, with references to everything from Some Like It Hot to The Godfather. Uniquely, though, all the parts are played by children. Including an excellent, if underused, Jodie Foster, as platinum-blonde singer Tallulah, Scott Baio in the title role, and a nine-year-old Dexter Fletcher wielding a baseball bat. Cream-firing “spluge guns” sidestep any real violence, and the movie climaxes cheerfully with the biggest custard pie fight.
Parker’s direction is spot on, and the look of the film is superb. This is a British love letter to classic American cinema. Bugsy Malone remains a true original; in Parker’s words “the work of a madman”, and one of the strangest yet most stylish children’s films ever made. It is always funny to note that Alan Parker, who would go on to be best known as a director of full-blooded, archly styled dramas, began his career with this sprightly gangster-themed musical cast entirely with kids, albeit representing adult counterparts. That it works so well is down to the high quality, low-mawkishness of his chosen youngsters, the elaborate production design built across Pinewood stages, and an excellent set of songs by Paul Williams. – – – – – Bianca
The Queen – Stephen Frears (2006)
Stephen Frears’ 2006 drama, The Queen, focuses on a specific moment in British history – the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the resulting reaction from the Royal Family. This film is well-made, and contains a bevy of powerful acting performances, most notably Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in an Oscar-winning turn. Michael Sheen also gives a striking performance as Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
A favorite aspect of this film is its willingness to let dramatic moments hang in the air as we watch facial reactions. In lesser films, these reactions would have been spoon-fed to us using dialogue, but the medium of film is better served by letting us watch and consider the reactions ourselves. The score by Alexandre Desplat also adds so much to the film. Desplat knows when to pull back and when to add accent, and the film is stronger for it. I was too young to remember these occurrences, but live footage sprinkled into the film gives it a verisimilitude that supports the film well. Overall, The Queen has great success in getting us to consider an important moment in British history a bit deeper. – – – – – Aaron
Death at a Funeral – Frank Oz (2007)
Funerals ought to be no laughing matter. The 2007 British film, Death at a Funeral, begs to differ. Not to say that Dean Craig’s bubbly screenplay of fumbling characters doesn’t have it’s darker side. Setting aside, the reunion of this family for such a somber occasion comes with baggage. The Frank Oz directed film gathers together siblings, spouses, relatives from abroad, all seemingly in a pickle of their own. The comedy potential could almost spring out at any time like a jack in a box.
There’s misplaced Valium. There’s Valium that is not actually Valium, but rather a form of hallucinogenic drug. There’s full-on naked escapades, messy toilet moments, noises from the coffin, secrets, lies, general Tom-foolery. The ensemble is impressive, a bunch of household names, and faces you know but can’t place. Matthew Macfadyen is up top, playing the brother who has the largest chunk of the world on his shoulders. Memorable performances come, too, from the likes of Daisy Donovan, Alan Tudyk, Peter Dinklage, and the cantankerous grandpa, Peter Vaughan. Smart enough to get your attention, and silly enough to hold it for the duration. – – – – – Robin
Trainspotting – Danny Boyle (1996)
Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle, is an abject look at Scotland and at a number of individuals suffering from various stages of heroin addiction. It’s filmed distinctly, its landscape captured as dolefully as its characters. This isn’t a film that glamorizes drug use (is there a film about heroin addiction that glamorizes it??) but one that shows consequence in a literal and psychological sense. Its characters – filled by actors such as Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, and Kevin McKidd – navigate such perils as relationships, sex, poverty, and addiction in an almost cyclic fashion. The film was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published,’ and is on IMDb’s ‘Top 250’ film list.
Trainspotting has competent acting and cinematography, and some especially harrowing set pieces. An infant’s death from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) one of its most poignant, aside others such as a chief character struggling through withdrawal, round out the film’s forlorn artistry. Probably what works best about Trainspotting as a film, is that its aim isn’t to moralize or normalize drug use. It simply paints an objective look at the path and end result of these individual’s lives, which is tragic, tense, and colorless. We only glimpse how colorless it truly is toward’s its end – as one characters attempts to reenter society as a member of the working class in tandem with another’s fate, which is both inevitable and ironic. – – – – – Mark
The War Zone – Tim Roth (1999)
The War Zone records the directorial debut of our very own Tim Roth, following in the grim footsteps of his buddy, Gary Oldman, who made the similarly powerful Nil by Mouth. Roth’s rural tale also shows a family painting over various cracks, made all the more harder by an inner-family brutality simmering. That fatherly force with a terrible temper is again played with ferocity by Ray Winstone. One might assume he was being type-cast where he not so frigging good at it. Incidentally, Lara Belmont makes a startling breakthrough as the daughter.
Screenwriter Alexander Stuart adapted the candid, coarse script from his own book. A personal journey for him, one which Roth drags onto onto the screen with all the prowess of a filmmaker well into their career behind the camera. The War Zone is certainly not for the whole family, in spite of its passengers at the heart of the story. An alarming affair in all, but an important, compelling film. Pulling us through the mud of one such rural tale of turmoil, ripping apart the seams of family bond with abusive acts you just can’t turn back on. – – – – – Robin
Kill List – Ben Wheatley (2011)
Kill List, is a mash-up of genres, a hard film to deconstruct because there’s so much going on beneath the surface. At the outset, it seems to be a post-Iraq gangster movie, following an ex-soldier named Jay (Neil Maskell) who teams up with an old army buddy, Gal (Michael Smiley), and carries out a series of ever more violent contract killings in order to support his wife and son. By the end, though, it has become something quite different. Like all good horror films, Kill List is really about something else, examining many themes such as capitalism, masculinity, gender roles and male privilege.
Drawing inspiration from a particular British horror classic and from Britain’s deep rooted pagan past, Wheatley and his wife and regular screenwriter, Amy Jump, created a descent into dark side of British culture and history. The film’s opening scene is one of the most strongest in recent cinematic history because of it’s mundaneness and subversion to the horror genre. By starting out as a kitchen-sink drama featuring the struggling working class, we find ourselves wondering if we’ve accidentally put the wrong DVD into the player, but it’s a great way of pulling us in. And when the inevitable twist does occur, it’s even more devastating. – – – – – Bianca
Hamlet – Kenneth Branagh (1996)
The works of William Shakespeare can be tough at the best of times on film. So to fully adapt the play Hamlet in pretty much it’s unabridged form, surely soars beyond the mere ambitious. Not for Kenneth Branagh, it seems. Adapting the great play, directing the picture, and putting himself in the shoes of the Prince of Denmark himself, Branagh’s Hamlet is a four hour feast. In 70 mm to boot. Such a grand, momentous achievement, was only rewarded with four Academy Award nominations – Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay – and nothing else. But that doesn’t matter.
Kenneth Branagh’s immersive, bold motion picture of betrayal, revenge, murder, madness, delivers across the board. Lavish, expansive in its scope and execution, Branagh has complete control over Shakespeare’s text. And what comes of the stage without its players. A remarkable cast features fellow British thespians, like Derek Jacobi, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Brian Blessed. There’s also some fitting parts for comedy folk, with Billy Crystal as the gravedigger, and none other than Ken Dodd, as Hamlet’s childhood jester. Let’s not forget the splendid Julie Christie as Gertrude. Branagh, too, is truly excellent as Hamlet. Though he would tip his gracious hat to Nicholas Farrell’s endearing Horatio, and 20 year-old Kate Winslet’s heart-breaking turn as Ophelia. – – – – – Robin
God’s Own Country – Francis Lee (2017)
Set along the rural backdrop of West Yorkshire, England, a patient love story unfolds in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. Dipped in the same cold, brooding tone as Brokeback Mountain, this feature length debut from Lee places one’s yearn for love at the core. And shows us the ways love can salvage us, change us, and open our hearts to something not once thought of. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) works on his family’s farm, tending to their livestock and not caring for much else in his daily routine. He’s frustrated, beginning to feel the weight of what’s expected of him, and takes the edge off by dousing his evenings in alcohol and casual sex. Soon, a handsome Romanian farmhand, Georghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives to assist Johnny with work and the two, first at odds, begin to grow fond of each other among the blistering cold secluded farm.
So aware of Johnny’s sexuality, the film never makes his preference a crucial point. Instead it ventures to relinquish him of any doubt to the notion of utter affection, companionship, and life. It puts a beautiful lense on a relationship that continues to build even as one character finds it hard to welcome the warmth of love. Lee is careful to give Johnny’s character an established sexual identity with himself all while pushing his arc into a more reflecting area—getting to know the quiet Georghe, sharing housing with him, and feeling a sexual attraction bloom into love out of uncommon grounds. God’s Own Country is a delicate piece of queer cinema in its landscape where two men become enclosed in each other’s energy, caressing the aptitude of patient love. – – – – – Jessica
The Railway Children – Lionel Jeffries (1970)
Growing up as a little girl, I was drawn to the stories such as The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and The Railway Children, I found them to be heartwarming tales about friendship and family. This 1970 film adaptation is an almost perfect cinematic rendition of Edith Nesbit’s popular children’s novel. It follows the lives of Roberta (Bobbie), Phyllis, and Peter, and their mother, after their father is unfairly accused of treason and sent to prison. They go to live in an almost uninhabitable house in the country which stands near a railway line. Their mother writes stories to make enough money for food, and candles, while the children spend much of their time around the railway station and, specifically, waving to one particular train to ‘send their love to father.
The characters are here brought to life under the perceptive direction of Lionel Jeffries, with Jenny Agutter playing Bobbie, and Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren as her sister and brother. Dinah Sheridan delivers a strong performance as the children’s mother, while there are other memorable performances from Bernard Cribbins and William Mervyn. The Railway Children is gentle entertainment from another age, but does its job beautifully. It is a timeless classic that is skillfully directed,ticking all the right boxes, and with some moving scenes, the ending always reduces to me to tears every time. It depicts all that is worthwhile in humanity and climaxes in the conquest of love and faith over cruel injustice. – – – – – Bianca
God Help the Girl – Stuart Murdoch (2014)
God Help the Girl seemed to sweep on by the film world of 2014, with hardly a whistle or a hum. A film that, for me, was instant nostalgia, the youthful days of music gigs, pining over girls, house shares, waiting for your future to make a move. Created by Stuart Murdoch, the man from Belle and Sebastian no less, the quirky little gem derives from the musician’s 2009 project. This, then, a narrative picture, focusing on three teenagers on the brink of that big next step in life. All musical-minded, their blooming friendship is largely formed through their quaint little indie band.
God Help the Girl offers the kind of music that most of us simply loved at one time or another in our fickle young lives. Catchy tracks, often to deft, winsome set-pieces, that linger long after in the mind. The threesome all bring something fresh and reminiscent to that time in our lives, but perhaps it is Emily Browning you remember that little bit more. Her Eve is infectious, but keeps people at arm’s length. A troubled soul, whose anorexic issues add just the right amount of bleak to the often postcard portrayal of forgotten youth. And this girl can sing, too. If ever there were a biopic of Sophie Ellis Bexter, who shone so brightly in her Theaudience days, then Browning would be a shoo-in for the part, in both looks and vocals. – – – – – Robin