Sunday, May 6, 2012

A British film

The British film industry is persistently insecure, driven by perpetual funding challenges, variable critical and commercial reactions to most of what it produces, the noisy shadow of the US, and the heavy sense that it all used to be much better and should be again. Much the same applies to the Canadian film industry, except for that last item: it’s hard to say our national cinema has ever amounted to much, a few bright spots aside, so we’re used to it. We’d be over the moon if one of our sound editing guys won an Oscar, let alone Christopher Plummer, but the British usually think they’re robbed if they don’t win all the Oscars. They didn’t manage that this year, but these are still relative boom times for them, hitting recent home runs for example in the stiff upper lip (The King’s Speech), gritty genre mash-up (Attack the Block) and contemporary prestige (Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin) departments.

British cinema

As with anything, it’s easy to stereotype the British film canon; to overlook for instance its weird avant-garde crevices or the immense depth of its social realist and documentary heritage. The most visible aspect of the latter came in the 1960’s, when actors including Albert Finney and Richard Harris rose to prominence in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life: it’s easy to generalize about them now, to view them as an affected miserable wallow in the kitchen sink, but I’m old enough to have seen some of those kitchen sinks with my own eyes, and to have felt the misery. Even at the height of what was called “Cool Britannia” in the Tony Blair era, this strand of British cinema kept ticking along, usually becoming even darker and despairing (no doubt as an expression of revulsion at the supposed “Coolness”, as for example in Ken Loach’s work), and like an inverse indicator of where things are at, it’s flourishing again now as Britain enters a new age of extreme constraint. Put simply, it’s bad over there – on a recent trip, everyone I talked to seemed preoccupied by shrinking resources and tightened living standards, and since just about every economic indicator is still headed in the wrong direction, there’s immense anxiety about the escalating social toll. Those old kitchen-sink films radiate physical and existential claustrophobia, and overwhelming pre-determination based on class and geography; if the characters glimpse the possibility of transcending it (often through sex) it’s usually identified by the end as an illusion, and one fueled, of course, by lots of booze (in this respect, the lives of the actors famously seems to have mirrored their art). Britain seemed for a while to be transcending that grim momentum, but there’s an awful sense now of succumbing to it again.


The most recent release in this tradition, now on DVD, is Tyrannosaur, written and directed by the actor Paddy Considine. It starts with Joseph, a violent man, who drunkenly kicks his dog to death in the opening minute, and in subsequent scenes seems to be willing society to hate him. At his most despairing, he meets Hannah, a worker in a charity shop, who tells him God loves him and prays for him; at their second meeting, he callously abuses her, bringing her to tears, but keeps being drawn back to her. Hannah lives in much better circumstances, in the good bit of town, but her husband abuses her, physically and mentally. What else? Joseph’s best friend is dying, and his best relationship is with a neighbourhood kid terrorized by his mom’s boyfriend’s vicious pit bull.

In the scheme of things, Tyrannosaur is a “small” film; the lives it depicts couldn’t sustain what we think of as a big one. But it’s stunningly acted, and consistently provocative about how constraint and loneliness and repetition push people into poisonous, distorted behaviour. It’s broadly true, as Rick Groen wrote in The Globe and Mail, riffing off the film’s title, that it’s “replete with all manner of rough beasts slouching toward something. For most, it’s something bad; but for a few, behind the snarl and deep within, it’s something better – a profound wish to feel the touch of civility, and be tamed.” But to me, this is less striking than the huge cost of that relative taming, and its cruel arbitrariness. It’s Joseph who’s consistently strained the social contract, but Hannah pays the greater price; the film’s last moments are its most conventionally peaceful and beautiful, but those qualities are at least severely compromised, if not, again, largely illusionary.

For all its great strengths, Tyrannosaur isn’t entirely successful: it feels overly calculated at times, and the individual pieces are somewhat more striking than the work as a whole. Maybe that’s in part because, expressed in Groen’s terms, this kind of British cinema is most effective when it puts aside any hope of being tamed, and stares deep into the eyes of the beast.

Two recent comedies

If you could keep only one strand of British film history, you’d have to consider going for the comedies. True, this would mean the loss of a golden opportunity to erase the memory of the Carry On pictures (nah, I wouldn’t want to do that anyway), but you’d also have the Ealing studio output like The Ladykillers, and Peter Sellers’ early work. On the other hand, in recent years a lot would depend on how much you like Hugh Grant and the Shawn of the Dead guys. But two recent films, both also available now on DVD, brighten the picture considerably. Submarine, directed by Richard Ayoade, is a rare comedy set in Wales, a not-so-distant cousin of Rushmore, with a major dose of Annie Hall, finding multiple modes of expression for its unconventional young protagonist’s inner life, making every moment distinctive and colourful without feeling forced. Any film about modern youth that depicts Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc as a date movie clearly has a major quirky streak, but it’s also well in touch with the repetitions and compromises that shape much of adulthood.

Even more striking is Chris Morris’ Four Lions, a foul-mouthed comedy about suicide bombers: a homegrown quartet who set their minds on blowing themselves up for the cause of radical Islam, just as on another day they might have decided to start up a soccer team. The four are mostly idiots, and Morris fearlessly plays the situation for laughs, from their absurd strategic and doctrinal arguments to reckless police shootings and unplanned detonations. This might obviously be considered tasteless, but there’s a chilling truth at its centre: their doggedly mundane commitment to destruction (in one of their cases with the happy support of his wife and kid, the most normal people in the film) evades any tidy social diagnosis or strategic response, mercilessly and scarily nailing the superficiality of “war on terror” rhetoric.

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