Guys and dolls on top
British cinema is looking its healthiest for years, with the emergence of a new generation of exciting young film directors, writes Ryan Gilbey, who speaks to six of the best
The Observer, Sunday 27 July 2008
When some future film historian attempts a definitive account of British cinema, it is not too fanciful to hope that 2008 might be granted a chapter all to itself. This is shaping up to be one of the best years for homegrown film in living memory. Cinematic new waves are announced with such frequency that it's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. But there is currently an unmistakable groundswell in British cinema, heralded by a clutch of directors who are chafing against the boundaries of narrative filmmaking, and in some cases dismantling them altogether.
What Steve McQueen does in Hunger, his movie about the last weeks of Bobby Sands's life in the Maze prison in 1981, reshapes conventional film language to reach the viewer on a primal level; you feel very strongly that if McQueen could impose a regime of fasting on every audience member prior to their seeing the picture, he would do so without hesitation. Similarly, the bold deconstruction of narrative marks out Duane Hopkins's elliptical Better Things, which unearths the cruel beauty in drab, drug-fuelled lives, and Joanna Hogg's Unrelated, about the bourgeois British on holiday in Italy, as fully realised works of authority and originality.
Meanwhile, Marianna Palka's near-the-knuckle comedy Good Dick and Dummy, Matthew Thompson's often jaunty take on grief, approach unpalatable subjects with aplomb. These films would be remarkable in any context. That they are all debut features suggests the kind of creative synchronicity that could nourish and transform the cultural landscape.
Other notable British debuts on release or coming soon include Alex Reubens's bold dance documentary Routes and Olly Blackburn's efficiently nasty Donkey Punch. There is also a rush of sophomore efforts opening shortly, from Saul Dibb's The Duchess to Thomas Clay's experimental, Thailand-set Soi Cowboy, widely acclaimed at Cannes this year alongside Better Things and the Caméra d'Or-winning Hunger
These directors have emerged from various backgrounds - art, documentary, television, acting. And though they are not united in any political sense, there is an aesthetic and thematic continuity between their films. These are not hopped-up TV productions, or Hollywood calling-cards disguised as movies. This is, at long last, cinema. And if that sounds like an obvious statement, it's important to remember that modern British filmmaking has a tradition of underselling both itself and film as an art form.
'The problem is that a lot of British cinema comes from TV,' observes Steve McQueen, 'so that's dominated our idea of cinema. I don't think many British filmmakers are used to working on a cinematic canvas.'
Matthew Thompson, who worked exclusively in television prior to making Dummy, agrees. 'It's a shame if we don't see cinema as a different medium in spatial terms,' he says. 'It can still be intimate and personal, but it also has to be about that image on a screen that is 60ft wide, rather than a box in the corner of the living-room.'
The tradition to which many of these new directors are cleaving is not the gritty social realism that has defined British cinema since the kitchen-sink dramas of the Fifties. Instead, the lineage for films such as Hunger, Better Things and Dummy reaches back not to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh but to the visionaries who used emotional and social realism as a springboard for the imagination - think Powell and Pressburger, Nicolas Roeg and Derek Jarman, as well as Bill Douglas, Terence Davies and Alan Clarke. 'I think traditionally we've been stuck in that idea of British cinema being synonymous with Loach and Leigh,' argues Joanna Hogg. 'It's frustrating for younger directors.''Social realism is this country's big thing,' notes Duane Hopkins, 'but there's a long tradition of filmmakers doing something poetic with it. And it often doesn't get recognised - one of my problems with film school is they never showed us any Bill Douglas.
'Recent bearers of this stylised tradition, such as Asif Kapadia (The Warrior), Andrea Arnold (Red Road) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar), have been few and far between, and certainly not widespread enough to constitute a movement. But while the Loachian documentary-style tradition has been kept alive in the work of Paul Greengrass, Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows, the rich seam of expressionistic cinema that runs from Black Narcissus to Red Road had hit a dead end - until now.