BBC Films changes to soft focus

Romances offer alternative in a world weary of crisis

LONDON — BBC Films is in the mood for love.

The pubcaster’s movie arm is readying a slew of period romances for production in the next few months, just as distribs are rediscovering their appetite for such heart-stirring fare in reaction to the current global crisis.

The timing may be coincidental, but the change in creative strategy is deliberate.

Although romantic costumers have always been a staple of BBC TV drama, its film arm has dabbled surprisingly rarely in the genre. The recent output of BBC Films is dominated by gangster pics, contempo romantic comedies and gritty dramas.

“We have been trying for some time to develop period love stories as part of our move beyond the niche world we’ve inhabited in the past,” says David Thompson, head of BBC Films.

“A lot of British cinema has often been life-denying, about negative values and nasty people like gangsters, and we’ve done our share of those,” admits Thompson.

Perceived shift

Having struggled to piece the slate together in this year’s exceptionally tough indie marketplace, Thompson is clearly now hoping to benefit from a perceived shift in public taste away from action and cheap thrills.

“These projects seem to have become much more commercial since Sept. 11. We’re being besieged by calls from distributors. Films about love are suddenly at a premium,” Thompson claims.

But he insists there’s nothing traditional about the way BBC Films is approaching its love stories. “The trick is to make the period feel like it’s ‘now,’ both through the script and the casting.”

It’s no coincidence that the slate is heavy with strong roles for top femme stars, such as Juliette Binoche, Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham-Carter, Olivia Williams and Audrey Tautou.

“We’re creating great parts for women, and that’s what’s missing in a lot of contemporary cinema, in America as well as Britain,” Thompson says.

Tim Fywell’s “I Capture the Castle,” based on Dodie Smith’s classic 1940s novel about teenage love, has just started shooting in the Isle of Man. Rising star Rose Byrne and newcomer Romola Garai star opposite Americans Marc Blucas and Henry Thomas.

Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s “The Heart of Me,” adapted from Rosamond Lehmann’s novel “The Echoing Grove,” will star Bonham-Carter and Williams as sisters entangled with Paul Bettany. “It’s written like a modern film, and it’s got a cast who don’t feel period, but it’s set in the 1930s when adultery really did matter,” says Thompson.

A project about the tragic relationship between American poetess Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, and her husband Ted Hughes is on the fast-track with Ruby Films.

“China Eyes,” to be directed by Phil Agland, is a “Romeo and Juliet” story about a young British woman and her Chinese lover set in early 20th century China against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion.

BBC Films also is working on two pics with Intermedia –Walter Salles’ “The Assumption of the Virgin,” starring Binoche and Benicio del Toro, about the passions of a 14th century painter, and “Mary Queen of Scots,” about the turbulent emotional and political career of the 16th century Scottish monarch.

The two companies have already collaborated this year on Richard Eyre’s “Iris,” starring Winslet and Dench, about the lifelong romance between novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, which ended with her death from Alzheimer’s.

That’s what Thompson means when he insists that the Beeb’s love stories are not “escapist.” “These are not romantic comedies, which tend to get repetitive, and not schmaltz, but films which arouse and explore strong emotions.”

Edginess included

But BBC Films is not abandoning its commitment to edgy, contemporary filmmaking. Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” which starts shooting next month, is a thriller set among London’s immigrant underclass, although it does have a romantic element, with “Amelie” star Tautou in her first English-speaking role.

Another new project on the gritty end of the spectrum is “Hotel California,” an original screenplay by “Trainspotting” author Irving Welsh, to be directed by Antonia Bird, about two British girls arrested for drug smuggling in Thailand.

But such pics are increasingly confined to lower-budget levels. Last week the pubcaster announced a deal with the Film Council to co-finance four $700,000 contempo movies with first-time directors who have proven themselves in other fields, such as comedy or documentaries.

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