British Cinema in 2012

Some thoughts on British Cinema in 2012 from British Council Film Department

  • Ben Wheatley's Sightseers

Ben Wheatley's Sightseers

If 2011 saw British cinema achieve a level of success unprecedented in recent decades, 2012 witnessed the emergence of an industry playing to its strengths, whilst continuing to increase appeal amongst local and international audiences. Following high-profile domestic productions We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Deep Blue Sea, Shame and The King’s Speech, which dominated festivals and box office charts around the world, the visibility of British talent, both in front of and behind the camera, remained remarkably high.

Two major events bookended the year, which drew heavily on the country’s cultural heritage. The 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth was celebrated around the world with readings, talks and screenings of the many Dickens film adaptations (British Council Film itself found huge appetite for Dickens on film internationally with over 45 countries screening Dickens' adaptations drawn from a menu of 20 films made available over the course of the year. The anniversary also prompted two new adaptations of  ‘Great Expectations’; the BBC produced one for television and the other, directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and closed the BFI London Film Festival, starred Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes.

The British Film Institute’s (BFI) major restoration of nine, key Hitchcock films from the 1920s was the platform from which the organisation launched a major celebration of arguably this country’s greatest director. In addition to the popular classics The Lodger and Blackmail, the restoration work, which included the commissioning of new scores to accompany the films, highlighted the importance of lesser-known films such as The Ring and The Manxman. Following the complete retrospective of Hitchcock’s work at the BFI over the summer, the restored films have now begun a journey across the world - beginning with our own gala screening of the director’s first feature The Pleasure Garden complete with a live score played by a Brazilian Youth ensemble screened outdoors on Rio's Copacabana Beach to a thrilled crowd of 6000, as a highlight of Transform - an inspiring way to highlight the important role that Britain played in pre-sound cinema.

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympic Games channelled the world’s media focus on Britain. While the former was more personal, acknowledging the role the monarch has played over 60 years of British life, the world’s largest sporting event became a platform for a highlighting the diversity of the Sceptered Isle. In the hands of Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting), the remarkable opening ceremony became an uncharacteristically cinematic event, which looked at the development of Britain, from the industrial age through to the present, celebrating the richness of a multicultural society. Boyle took inspiration for the ceremony from Pandaemonium, the posthumously published collection of nearly 400 contemporary texts dating 1660-1886 collated by the late Humphrey Jennings, possibly the greatest of all British documentary filmmakers. Of the many highpoints, the appearance of The Queen with James Bond was Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce’s most overtly cinematic reference. It also presaged the clamour surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Bond film series and the release of the much-anticipated Skyfall.

British theatre director and filmmaker Sam Mendes’ first UK-set production is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercial successful Bond films. Daniel Craig finally makes the character his own, while Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes offer fine support as the face of the British establishment. Few Bond films have ever featured the British landscape quite so much – from views over its capital to the Scottish Highlands ­­– even making the old A9 road through Scotland a major feature of the narrative.

Other blockbuster films highlighted the importance of Britain’s contribution to global cinema. Christopher Nolan, now one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, scored again with the final instalment of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Epic in every way, the film featured a plethora of British talent in front of the camera, including Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman. Likewise, the cream of British acting talent dominate the first release in Peter Jackson’s new Middle Earth trilogy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Joining Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Andy Serkis this time round are Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch and, as eponymous hero Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman.

British directing talent is also taking centre stage in early 2013 with Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) helming the blockbuster screen adaptation of the successful stage musical of Les Misérables. With an all-star cast, the film is already crossing all age groups, highlighting the increased attention towards a particularly lucrative demographic that has previously been underestimated.  As The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed earlier in 2012, it is not just the 18-35 age group that can attend cinemas in their masses. With the average age of societies around the world increasing, the film industry is waking up to the need to produce films that reflect this fact. John Madden’s adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel showed the potential of this audience, who are proving key to the greater success of Les Misérables and, more significantly, for Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, a British production based on the stage play by Ronald Harwood and starring Tom Courtney, Dame Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins. Two other British films released in early 2013, Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on the Hudson, starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney and Olivia Coleman, and Paul Andrew Williams’ Song for Marion, with Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, will also benefit from the appeal of their stories to a more mature audience.

The importance of cinema’s appeal to every sector of British society, as well as championing British cinema internationally, was highlighted in a new initiative, ‘Film Forever: Supporting UK Film 2012-2017’, unveiled by the BFI in October 2012. As the organisation’s CEO, Amanda Nevill, stated, “Film Forever is founded on a renewed commitment to the future – the future generation of audiences, the future generation of filmmakers and the opportunities presented by digital technologies. We are investing where we think we can make the most difference, where we see potential for creative excellence and where we can be the supportive catalyst for change, innovation, business growth and jobs."  The scheme will see almost £500 million invested in three areas over five years: education and audiences; British film and filmmaking; and film heritage. It is hoped that this scheme will not only support filmmaking and distribution in the near future, but also encourage an interest in film and its rich past for generations to come.

This wide view of the role of cinema could also be seen in the re-vamped BFI London Film Festival, under the auspices of its recently appointed Director Clare Stewart. The festival’s programme was restructured with a view to widening its potential audience, along with the venues screening films, which were spread out across London, rather than concentrated in its centre. The change worked, with record attendances.

The Festival screened over 70 British titles across all the various programme strands. They highlighted the remarkable diversity of talent and subject matter. Many of the films also offered continued hope for the future of British film. In addition to the success of established figures such as Ken Loach (The Angel’s Share, which debuted at Cannes) and Sally Potter (Ginger and Rosa), the year witnessed many new talented filmmakers, such as Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (Good Vibrations), Kieran Evans (Kelly and Victor), Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil, winner of the Best British Newcomer at the festival), Scott Graham (Shell) and Rowan Athale (Wasteland).

A number of British directors are countering the notion that film production is almost always a lengthy process. Their work rate is not only prolific, but it benefits from the elasticity of the medium. Michael Winterbottom has consistently shifted between cinema and television, and fiction and documentary. After 2011’s Trishna and The Trip, the director completed Everyday, the story of a man incarcerated in prison for five years. Winterbottom and his cast actually shot the film over the same time period,  a few weeks each year. His new project, The Look Of Love, launched at Sundance 2013 is a bio-pic of legendary London porn baron Paul Raymond. Shane Meadows, whose work rate is only marginally less busy, turned to television to complete two follow-ups to his hugely acclaimed This is England (2006). There are likely to be further instalments following on from This is England ’86 (2010) and This is England ’88 (2011), but first Meadows is completing a documentary on the British band The Stone Roses.

The latest filmmaker to show his ingenuity in producing work at great speed is Ben Wheatley. After working in television for a few years, Wheatley self-financed the low-budget crime drama Down Terrace (2009), whose dark tone, leavened by comedy, underpins the work that followed. Kill List (2011) is another play with genre, skirting the edges of horror in its tale of a mercenary contracted to carry out a series of bizarre killings. The director’s third film, Sightseers, premiered at Cannes this year and was greeted with universal praise. The story of a serial killer and his girlfriend on holiday in the north of England, it skilfully balances humour and violence - and was probably rightly summed up as 'the British film of the year'  by trade mag Screen given its fantastic example of the British indie film world working together. Continuing his impressive work rate, Wheatley has already shot a low-budget period horror, A Field in England, which is set for release in 2013 and is in pre-production on a Sci-Fi themed drama set in the US.

With emerging talent, publicly funded short film schemes (such as the UK Film Council's Cinema Extreme) have long been proved to encourage digital innovation and experimentation. They've provided a fertile test bed for exciting auteur filmmakers working in both live action and animation, such as Daniel Mulloy, Duane Hopkins, Sarah Wood and Daniel Elliot whose films have all travelled extensively and picked up major prizes at prestige festivals in the UK and abroad.  We show no sign of slowing in this area; in early 2013 , 6 UK shorts were selected for Sundance, 14 for Clermont-Ferrand and a further 14 for Rotterdam, three of the top festivals in the world for emerging filmmakers.

At Locarno International Film Festival 2012 Gabriel Gauchet’s Mass of Men scooped the Pardino d’oro for Best International Short while Michael Lennox’s Back of Beyond was awarded the Pianific Prize. Publicly funded shorts such as Fyzal Boulifa’s The Curse are also enjoying strong international festival runs and the industry eagerly awaits the results of the £1 million pound investment for new shorts made by the BFI in February 2012,  which complete in early 2013.   

Alongside the success and renown of Aardman, the UK’s international reputation as a centre for creativity in independent animation continues to be endorsed - the BFI’s Film Forever plan proposed a particular focus on developing animated feature films. The film adaptation of Monty Python member Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography harnessed talent from 14 animation studios in 2012.  Animated Shorts meanwhile continued to shine with some remarkable success stories such as that of Abuelas, Afarin Eghbal’s’s graduation film from the National Film and Television School – winner of a staggering 44 prizes to date and the NFTS’ most garnered short  ever.  Will Anderson’s The Making of Longbird, winner of the McLaren Prize and Best Short Film at Edinburgh International Festival, Best Graduation Film at Annecy and many other awards. A Morning Stroll by Studio AKA director Grant Orchard won over 35 awards from festivals including Sundance, Annecy, Ottawa and Anima Mundi, as well as a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination.

UK film in 2012 has once again rebuffed François Truffaut’s infamous quote about British cinema, declaring it 'boring', and suggesting it 'reflects a submissive way of life, where enthusiasm, zeal and impetus are quickly rooted out'. That statement can no longer reflect the exciting, vibrant and inspiring work that we have and will continue to produce. This continues to be a great time for British Film!