It’s a strong year for British movies as the upcoming festival season tells us, but why aren’t there any movies set in today’s Britain?
One year ago this week, the UK government announced that it would close down the UK Film Council (UKFC), a decision that was so sudden it triggered a crisis of confidence in the British film industry. In July 2011, many of the UKFC staff and some of its key functions have been rehoused in the British Film Institute (BFI), and while some funding strands have been eliminated, the picture a year later is far from the catastrophe that was once predicted.
Going into the autumn film festival season, the UK is looking robust. Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is still glowing in its post-Cannes reception. Venice will host world premieres for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, Steve McQueen’s Shame and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The Film Fund invested in the first three of those films, while Tinker Tailor was a Working Title production fully financed by StudioCanal.
Toronto will see world premieres for The Woman In The Fifth from Pawel Pawlikowski, Trishna from Michael Winterbottom, The Deep Blue Sea from Terence Davies, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen from Lasse Hallstrom and 360, the new Fernando Meireilles film which is a contemporary version of La Ronde by Peter Morgan with an cast including UK stalwarts Rachel Weisz, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins.
It’s a strong crop and all this in a year which saw British cinema and talent reach giddy heights with The King’s Speech, a $13m period piece which won the best picture Oscar and grossed $415m worldwide.
One thing that strikes me about this batch is the distinct shortage of movies which are actually about contemporary Britain. We’ve always loved our period films – Wuthering Heights, Tinker Tailor, Deep Blue Sea et al – but a lot of these titles actually take place outside the UK. Kevin, of course, is set in the US as is Shame in which Ireland’s Michael Fassbender and England’s Carey Mulligan play characters raised in New Jersey.
The Woman In The Fifth takes place in Paris and Trishna takes place in India.
I only mention this because I rewatched My Beautiful Laundrette last weekend and was struck by what a superb encapsulation of Britain at the time it was. While still vastly entertaining, it managed to capture the economic opportunism of Thatcher’s Britain while beautifully reining in issues of race, sexuality and identity.
Other great British films illustrate the Britain of their time with similar clarity from the Kitchen Sink films of the 1960s to Performance, Kes to Naked, The Long Good Friday to Trainspotting.
Maybe contemporary Britain isn’t a particularly dramatic place for film-makers to set their stories. Maybe we need a few more years of the new government before writers have something politically or socially significant to get their teeth into. Maybe British film-makers are just casting their nets wider for stories, or the world is getting smaller and setting is less important than universal themes.
In the meantime, it’s back to the past for Britain on screen. More George VI in Hyde Park On The Hudson, Edward VIII in W.E. and Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. The past, it seems, is always in fashion.