Oh how very British of us. To want to sing in our own solitude. To want to participate in a televised game show. To not take our driving lessons seriously. To make films about the suffering that came out of slavery or war. Indeed. The following ten motion pictures dabble in some of this and some of that. And that bloody Michael Caine shows up in three of them. Take a look:
Little Voice – Mark Herman (1998)
Back then, in the roaring 90s, you may not really have known who Jane Horrocks was if you were not from these shores. You may not know who she is now, but that’s neither here nor there. People from the UK should recognise her from her TV work (like Absolutely Fabulous). You may or may not be aware that she performed in the stage version of Little Voice. Or that she was the muse for the play (Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress I might add), having been heard singing like the one and only Judy Garland. Yes, that is Horrocks singing in the movie.
And as the roaring lion hidden under the posture of a little mouse, Jane Horrocks is superb. L.V. mimics Marilyn Monroe at times when speaking, and spends a lot of her time away in her room singing to old records. Her flaunting mother (a terrific, Oscar nominee, Brenda Blethyn), pesters her to basically get a life. When a boisterous local club owner (Golden Globe winner, Michael Caine is hilarious) spots L.V.’s voice he sees stars. Horrocks barely speaks, and her facial expression remains timid, but she is very much acting the whole time. Horrocks was nominated at the Globes, BAFTAs, and Screen Actors Guild to name a few, but AMAPS thought otherwise. Sadly. – – – – – Robin
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – Stanley Kubrick (1964)
Yes, this film tells a predominantly American story. But director Stanley Kubrick (who moved to the UK for greater creative control over his films) produced and released the film in the UK, it stars British actor Peter Sellers, and Britain plays an important role in the story. In any case, how can you pass up even the slightest opportunity to talk about this classic satire? The talent mentioned previously, certainly give this film the foundation for its success. Add in the supporting performances from Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott, and you begin to see why this is such a classic.
Then there are the incredible production stories, like the fact that Kubrick told Scott he wouldn’t record some takes to get the actor to go extra zany. Invariably, those were the takes that Kubrick used. Also, the film’s original screening date was set for November 22, 1963 – the same day as John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Subsequently, the release was pushed back to the following January. Sellers plays three roles in the film, and he alone is enough reason to watch. His phone call with the U.S.S.R. President will always make me laugh, no matter how many times I see it. – – – – – Aaron
A Field in England – Ben Wheatley (2013)
Fleeing for their lives, a small party abandon their Civil War confederates and escape through an overgrown field. Thinking only of what lay behind, they are ambushed by two dangerous men, and made to search the field. Psychedelia, madness and chaotic forces slowly overtake the group as they question what treasure lies within the malignant field. With outstanding photography, excellent editing, brilliant sound design, and great acting, A Field in England is an underrated gem. Criticised for being slightly pretentious, I consider it extremely innovative, with its unique form of storytelling, reminiscent of the 1970s era of cinema.
This is a great reminder of what cinema is capable of when it relies on its inherent, traditional strengths and techniques, rather than trying to enhance them with CGI and special effects. What the movie does is not just to imitate history, but to reflect on its deeper meaning. Notice how the earthy, ignorant common soldiers switch their allegiance in the course of the nightmarish conflict in the field. The soundtrack had an interesting mix of medieval drums, folk and ambient electronica, which helps to reinforce the chilling atmosphere. Acting was good enough, with Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen always a welcome presence, and Michael Smiley is also a delight. Please don’t be put off by the fact that this is in black and white, and give it a shot. – – – – – Bianca
12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen (2013)
A hearty Best Picture win at the Academy Awards, gave Steve McQueen and co plenty of joy on the big night. Even when the Best Director prize went elsewhere. The euphoria was largely due to a long road to that moment. 12 Years a Slave tells a brutal truth of a chapter of American history. A film that looked unbeatable on the dawn of awards season, but with shifts in tide and voters declaring they couldn’t see it, the win in the end was not the foregone conclusion.
With also an acting Oscar in the bag, we ought to not stop the applause for the two male nominees. Chiwetel Ejiofor has been lurking in the shadows for some time, I personally have been impressed with him for years. And finally a stunning role worthy of his potential arrives. In Steve McQueen’s deeply immersing and emotionally powerful 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor really gets his teeth into a role that requires all manner of anguish and pain. While somehow allowing glimpses of hope, and seeing some good beyond the bad. As for McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender, he is brilliant as always, grabbing his villainous character by the balls, and shoving it down our throats. Fassbender is in his element here, a terrific, energetic performance fueled by a rage and a grit that not many others can pull off. – – – – – Robin
Slumdog Millionaire – Danny Boyle (2008)
When Danny Boyle’s take on a Bollywood film won eight Academy Awards, and became the equal-fourth most-awarded film in Oscars history, many awards-watchers groaned. This placed Slumdog Millionaire in the esteemed company of Hollywood classics, like On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity, and Gone with the Wind. Even though it was a rather light year of contenders (remember The Reader was a Best Picture nominee that year), it damn-well deserved every one of those eight Oscars. Slumdog Millionaire is the uplifting story of a young man who rose from the slums of Mumbai to become a national hero. As 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) faces questions on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Flashbacks reveal how the events of his life have miraculously provided Jamal with the answers to every question, leading to questions about the legitimacy of his victory.
Another example of the Academy simply falling madly in love with a film, it’s hard to not also adore Boyle’s charming and endearing piece of cinema. He crafted something truly dazzling, with a genius structure, insanely frenetic editing, and glorious visual style. The dizzying way he’s crafted this film is remarkable, and it makes for such a terrific ride. But the film’s finest triumph is Anthony Dod Mantle’s stunning cinematography. Despite filming the slum areas of India, the film never once looks anything but beautiful. Somehow, Mantle finds the majesty in every aspect of these areas, and the results are utterly glorious. You add in Dev Patel’s star-making performance, A.H. Rahmen’s gorgeous score, which mixes Hollywood with Bollywood and a dash of modern hip-hop. And that phenomenal finale, featuring an elaborate and energetic dance number, and you have a phenomenal film which rightfully swept the Oscars. – – – – – Doug
Happy Go-Lucky – Mike Leigh (2008)
Acquiring a beloved fanbase, partly due to the mantra that misery loves company, Mike Leigh has made in unforgettable film career of grassroots, British bleakness. With Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh tries his foot in somewhat more optimistic waters. We’re still on familiar Leigh ground here, but through his central character, Poppy, he’s written a strand of joyous beating drums to battle the most melodic jingles of melancholy. For Happy-Go-Lucky, perhaps Leigh deserves yet another pat on the back, for refraining from (mostly) the gloomy England. Though it does have an undercurrent, and dangles a central character in front of us, who is full of beans, so in-your-face at times, an old misery guts might run a mile.
Leigh writes and directs that character in a way so to show us someone so, well, happy-go-lucky, can take life’s heavier moments very serious when she needs to. Poppy has flaws, and knows what stage of life she is in, but the smile on her face, and answer to everything, appears to have got her this far. Which brings us to Sally Hawkins. So extraordinary as Poppy, a character who may well infuriate you as much as she makes you laugh, but in the end you just want what’s best for her. Hawkins’ Poppy is a real person from the outset, based not just on lines and actions, but Leigh often lets his cast run with the script. And Hawkins here, in such an impressive comfort zone, is like a gazelle – but you believe it, and are hypnotized by it from start to finish. Inspriational – – – – – Robin
Is There Anybody There – John Crowley (2008)
Set in 1980s seaside England, this is the story of Edward (Bill Milner), an unusual ten year old boy growing up in an old people’s home run by his parents. Whilst his mother (Ann-Marie Duffy) struggles to keep the family business afloat, and his father copes with the onset of mid-life crisis, Edward is busy tape-recording the elderly residents to try and discover what happens when they die. Increasingly obsessed with ghosts and the afterlife, Edward’s is a rather lonely existence, until he meets Clarence (Michael Caine), the latest recruit to the home, a retired magician with a liberating streak of anarchy.
Is There Anybody There? tells the story of this odd couple – a boy and an old man – facing life together, with Edward learning to live in the moment and Clarence coming to terms with the past. The interactions between Milner and Caine are an absolute treat to watch, with Caine delivering perhaps his best performance in years. He’s grumpy, but sympathetic at the same time. This is a heart warming film, that teaches us to live for the moment, and that regrets can eat you up inside. It also encourages us to respect our elders, who are often shoved into care homes and forgotten about. Although, this is in no means a classic comedy, there is still enough here to keep you entertained, and its worth watching for Caine’s performance alone. – – – – – Bianca
Educating Rita – Lewis Gilbert (1983)
Yes, it’s Michael Caine again. This time teaming up with Julie Walters, in one of Britain’s finest comedy films, Educating Rita, from 1983. Caine is heavy-on-the-drink professor, to Walter’s admission into adult education. Rita is brash, unapologetic, and does not mince her words. But she is also keen to learn, the kind of character who would perhaps, even today, be not taken seriously by many. And Bryant needs this kind of distraction in his life. This is by no means an opposites attract romance, more a compelling companionship between two adults trying to escape very different lives, but not very forthcoming about it.
Adapted from his stage play, this is terrific writing from Willy Russell. The transition from stage to screen works a treat. The characters are immediately accessible, and likable in spite of their shortcomings. Walters and Caine, both nominated for Academy Awards, and immeasurably brilliant, so much suited to these roles you would believe thy were written just for them. Their quick-witted banter and moments of cross-fire, only fuel the rapport. Lewis Gilbert, who has directed Caine prior, shows his experience as a filmmaker, in constructing a, can-we-say, typical British set-up, merging the realistic comedy moments with the drama. – – – – – Robin
Submarine – Richard Ayoade (2010)
Submarine is a coming-of-age comedy set in the not so glamorous location of Wales, and follows Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who is gangly and awkward, struggling with popularity in school. But when he imagines his own funeral, the entire country mourns. He bullies one girl to try and impress another, but then writes a long letter not so much repenting his guilt but teaching her how to be cool. His father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor) is a depressed marine biologist, while his mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) is inappropriately attracted to their neighbour, an old boyfriend of hers. He’s a mystic, theatrical performer, and Oliver and Lloyd are the only ones that see it for the nonsense that it is.
The dialogue, like Oliver, is precocious but hilarious, with a surprisingly fresh feel considering how tired the genre has become. Submarine is a wonderfully engaging film. Along with being very funny, It genuinely understands, and insightfully explores, teen anxiety and communication/perception troubles. While watching it, I felt like I was experiencing the story first hand. As a result of an artfully made, endearing and enjoyable experience, the film gently implies a progressive and positive message. Please seek out this wonderful debut feature from Richard Ayoade, it won’t disappoint! – – – – – Bianca
Testament of Youth – James Kent (2014)
Such a shame people were not talking about the compelling, if rather melancholy, Testament of Youth during awards of 2014 / 15. Or any season for that matter. Telling the portion of Vera Brittain’s life engulfed in love and loss during the first World War, James Kent’s drama balances the humanity and sorrow rather well. The film rolls through the kind of consequences and prospects one would expect from such a troubling time. Showing many sides of the war, from those left in anguish at home, or tending directly to wounded soldiers.
Perhaps overshadowed a little by her universal breakout role in Ex Machina, Alicia Vikander turns in an endearingly powerful performance in Testament of Youth. One of the stand-out moments here then comes when Vera is finally reunited with her love Roland (Kit Harington) on his leave from war. But he is distant and cold towards her, war has damaged him, before she has to force him to acknowledge her: “Here, look at me, this is real, feel it.” she implores, making him touch her. It’s an honest, spontaneous out-pour of pure emotion under the most painful of circumstances. – – – – – Robin