Working my way around European Cinema, I almost forgot the UK. The long tradition of film-making here has been diluted over the years, with the demise of many famous studios, and leading actors and directors ‘defecting’ to the USA. There is still a vast amount to choose from though, and here are five to think about.
Brighton Rock. The first, and best film treatment of the Graham Greene novel. This 1947 film gives the young Richard Attenborough the role of the psychotic Pinkie, a juvenile gang-leader , arguably one of his best ever performances. Filmed for the most part on the streets of post-war Brighton during the summer, it serves as a fascinating social documentary as well, portraying those times, the vehicles, and the style of dress. With a cast of well-known British character actors supporting Attenborough’s menacing central lead, this is a great example of the sort of British film that was soon to disappear from our screens. Here is an atmospheric clip.
Dead Man’s Shoes. This riveting revenge thriller, from 2004, grabs you from the very start, and doesn’t let go. One of the best examples of modern British Cinema, with a leading man and director who both wrote the script as well. Arguably the best actor of his generation, Paddy Considine gives his usual relentless performance, so believable, it is almost impossible to ever ‘catch him’ actually acting. Shane Meadows directs with his habitual sense of the bleakness and despair of Middle England, in unfamiliar locations, with realistic sets. Not for the faint-hearted, containing scenes of sexual abuse, and extreme violence, this is nonetheless a modern classic, and unreservedly recommended. Here is Considine at his best, confronting the local gangsters.
Henry V. Made towards the end of the war, in 1944, this original version, both directed by, and starring, Lawrence Olivier, remains by far the most entertaining version of the Shakespeare play filmed to date. Oozing patriotism, and designed to cheer up and inspire the war-weary British audience of the time. The colours are sumptuous, to the point of looking artificial, and the lavish sets, and huge principal battle scene, show just how much time and money were poured into this production. Olivier is at his stirring best, and the meeting of the English and French at Agincourt, is a battle scene rarely equalled to this day. There is also the delightful opening, a play within the film, where the original Globe Theatre is portrayed, and we go from there, to the fields of France. With historical merit, and having that rare skill of making Shakespeare accessible to the masses, this is one that I could not leave off my list. This clip shows a representation of the Battle of Agincourt.
Lawrence of Arabia. Despite being set in the Middle East, and starring an Irish actor, this is every inch a British film. One of the best examples of the wonderful film making talent of David Lean, this 1962 epic won an amazing seven Oscars, and deserved them all. The cast list is a roll call of acting legends. As well as Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, it also stars Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains, and Jose Ferrer. The soundtrack is so apt, you cannot imagine that music with anything else. The cinematography is breathtakingly good, and the vast scale, and long duration, give all the plot lines time to develop. There is just nothing bad about this film. What more can I say? This is the famous scene where Lawrence meets Omar Sharif’s character, who seems to appear from a mirage. It is somewhat compressed.
Get Carter. It is 1971, and things are getting tougher. The TV shows are grittier than ever, and even swearing and nudity are slowly becoming more acceptable. Along comes this film, another revenge thriller, written and directed by Mike Hodges, and starring Michael Caine, and all bets are off. From now on, this will be the benchmark by which all other British gangster films are judged. With Caine at his Cockney hard-man best, and a wonderful supporting cast of some of Britain’s best actors of the 1970’s, we are left with an unforgettable film, that sets a trend for all that follow. There are some notable flaws. Britt Ekland, at best a mediocre actress, is pointlessly cast as a love interest for the lead, and the somewhat effete writer, John Osborne, is unconvincing as a ruthless crime lord. Thankfully, none of this detracts from the excellent Newcastle setting, and the realistic portrayal of the seedy and corrupt underbelly of crime and the world of cheap pornography. Widely regarded as a British classic, I can only agree with this conclusion. This cinema trailer gives a good overview of the film.
This is merely a tiny peek into the vast catalogue of British Cinema. Most have been shown on television, on many occasions, yet you may not have bothered to watch them. All are relatively cheap, and freely available on DVD, so you will have different options, should you desire to see them. I am confident that not one of them will fail to impress, at one level, or another. There has been a lot left out, I am well aware of that. I would like to have included the films of Mike Leigh, something starring Ray Winstone, and the marvellously childish comedies of Will Hay. I would also wish to have written extensively about the many, and frequently excellent, filmed adaptations of a Dickens novel. Another time perhaps.