Filmmakers turn away from escapism

If any filmmaker fits the description of a prophet without honor in his own country, it’s Ken Loach.

His Irish Civil War drama “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” may have been good enough to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes last May, but it didn’t manage to get a single BAFTA nomination in his own homeland.

Yet the spirit of Loach presided over British cinema in 2006 as filmmakers responded to these times of global anxiety by turning away from escapism — whether romantic comedy, period pics or gangster capers — and embracing contemporary drama engaged with the pressing question of how we live now.

Even at the blockbuster end of the scale, reality intrudes. “Casino Royale” triumphantly unveiled a grittier, more human Bond whose antagonist is no cartoonish Dr. Evil, but a financier of terrorism. “Borat” blurs the lines of fiction and fact to pose hilarious questions about racism, prejudice and America’s attitude toward the world.

And with movies such as “The Queen,” “Venus,” “Notes on a Scandal,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “United 93,” “Breaking and Entering,” “Red Road” and “London to Brighton,” it was almost as though “The Wednesday Play” and “Play for Today,” the BBC’s legendary strands of socially committed telepics from the1960s and ’70s, had suddenly been reborn for the 21st century.

Of course, that was exactly where the likes of Loach, “Queen” director Stephen Frears and “Notes on a Scandal” helmer Richard Eyre cut their filmmaking teeth.

Eyre actually ran the “Play for Today” anthology for a time, before heading off to run the National Theater. He acknowledges public-service TV and subsidized theater as the twin, entwined roots of “Notes.”

“I learnt about filmmaking at ‘Play for Today,’ and we always plucked writers from the theater,” he says. “We’re all graduates of British TV. There’s a variety and ambition of a lot of TV drama, which has been incredibly vigorous in the past and indeed sporadically into the present.”

Frears, who admits he was surprised auds embraced the authenticity of “The Queen” rather than the lightweight escapism of his previous flop “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” comments: “It’s very striking that this whole group of rather good films has come through, which go back to places like the BBC and the Royal Court Theater. They gave us a clear sense of decent values, which we learned under the Welfare State, with a great importance attached to writers and material. And in a way, Loach was the father of all that.”

Royally radical

The subsidized Royal Court was always a hothouse of taboo-busting, socially committed theater. “Venus” director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi place their story explicitly within that tradition by having Peter O’Toole’s decrepit actor take Jodie Whittaker’s working-class ingenue to see a play — where else but the Royal Court.

With a sly self-parody, this play consists of three working-class girls saying “fuck” and “cunt” a lot. Kureishi’s script already gave such unexpected language to O’Toole and his sidekick, Leslie Phillips.

“Breaking and Entering” writer-director Anthony Minghella is another influenced by “Play for Today.” His own movie debut, “Truly Madly Deeply,” started life as a BBC telepic. Its surprise success swept him away into a decade of literary/historical epics — “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” — before he returned to his roots in contempo London drama with “Breaking and Entering.”

“I’m younger than guys like Frears and Eyre, but I grew up watching their work on ‘Play for Today,'” Minghella says. “My first collection of plays was called ‘Interior Room, Exterior City,’ which reflects my preoccupation with the fact that what happens in personal-relationship stories really only makes sense in the context of what goes on outside the windows.

Explosive context

“At the time, it was less easy for everyone to grasp what I meant by that, but now everyone understands what that means,” he adds. “Literally while we were shooting ‘Breaking and Entering’ in London, there were bombs going off just two or three miles away.”

For their part, Paul Greengrass and Michael Winterbottom both deployed the techniques of docudrama, which evolved in Brit public TV, to confront the uncomfortable truths of 9/11 and the “war on terror” in “United 93″ and “The Road to Guantanamo,” respectively. The guru of the new “reality cinema” is scriptwriter Peter Morgan, with features such as “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland,” and the acclaimed telepic “Longford.”

With this trend toward authenticity, it’s perhaps no wonder that Brit critics were so dismissive about the fake London depicted in Woody Allen’s “Match Point.” Allen’s second London pic, “Scoop,” hasn’t even got a British distributor.

There’s no doubt that filmmakers want to make this stuff — even Working Title, the king of commercial escapism, is turning toward docs and reality cinema, after the acclaim it received for “United 93.” What’s less clear, as Loach himself could testify after a long career of swimming against the commercial tide, is whether audiences actually want to see it.

Brit pics generally fared poorly at the box office in 2006. Mankind, it seems, cannot bear too much reality. Ironically, Loach had his most successful outing ever at the U.K. box office with “Barley,” a movie dismissed by BAFTA voters, perhaps because its concern with the fratricidal politics of 1920s Ireland seemed so remote from present-day realities.

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