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The Highland lows

Brits strive to combine art, marketability

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Brit pics came away with a mixed report card at the 54th Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival, which closed Sunday. A host of world and local preems, plus a full schedule of industry confabs, left the impression that the Brits still lack the ability to combine art and commerce, even as they haven’t lost their appetite for whining and self-flagellation.

Under current program topper Lizzie Francke, a former critic, the EIFF has become the annual litmus test of the local industry, with the campus-flavored fest providing a relaxed venue for cinematic scrutiny.

Overall, this year’s Focus on British Cinema was less revelatory than the previous two editions, with most interest centering on legit director Stephen Daldry’s crowd-pleasing debut, “Billy Elliot” (previously unveiled at Cannes as “Dancer”), and first-timer Jamie Thraves’ ambling relationship comedy “The Low Down” (preemed a fortnight earlier at Locarno).

“Billy” won the fest’s audience award, and “Low Down” lead thesp Aidan Gillen won the British performance award for best newcomer.

Likable, not marketable

The 13-title lineup featured several likable, but not highly marketable, pics — strongly regional dramedies rooted in everyday life, like John Hay’s soccer pic “There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble,” Paul Pawlikowski’s Russian immigrant drama “Last Resort” (awarded the Michael Powell award for best new British feature), Simon Cellan Jones’ “Some Voices” and Mark Herman’s soccer-fan comedy “Purely Belter” (both from Cannes).

Two of the most impressive debuts on the lowbudget scale were shot on DV (a rapidly developing format for features), Elliot Hegarty’s well-scripted comedy centered on a London bar, “County Kilburn,” and Glaswegian May Miles Thomas’ B&W mother-son drama, “One Life Stand,” which revealed very promising film-makers beneath their no-budget trappings.

Francke acknowledges that British cinema is going through “a period of pain inherent to any growth phase,” but reckons her lineup of the best available was a reminder of “what filmmakers here can do well with lowbudget expectations.” Her objective, she told Daily Variety, has always been “to provide an annual snapshot” and “keep the debate alive.”

Buyers in general weren’t bowled over by the commercial smarts of the new Brit crop. “There’s always a strong demand out there for English-language titles, so we have to keep seeing them,” one international scout told Daily Variety. “But there’s much more skepticism nowadays over the whole British renaissance thing.”

Lack of ‘provocation’

Francke herself expresses disappointment at the lack of any real “provocation” in current British cinema. “I don’t see movies being made here like, say, Catherine Breillat’s ‘Romance’ or Karyn Kusama’s ‘Girlfight,’ or weird and wonderful movies like the Japanese ‘Audition’ and ‘The Ring.’ There’s a lack of any sense of risk-taking.”

Last three titles were all in the fest’s other sections, which had a cohesive adventurous flavor across a wide range of genres that wasn’t reflected in the Brit lineup. Almost to make a point, the festival opened and closed with two non-English productions, Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” and Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love.”

The fest’s new director’s award went to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Love’s a Bitch,” with special mentions going to the Iranian “A Time for Drunken Horses,” Argentinean “Crane World,” and David Gordon Green’s “George Washington.”

Lack of risk-taking was also the underlying theme at one key industry confab, provocatively titled “The State of the British Film Industry: A Nation Mourns.” But moaning, rather than mourning, was more the prevailing mood, with participants re-rehearsing the usual excuses about lack of “structures” (i.e., public money and government invectives) and good scripts (plus good script doctors).

Glancing westward

There was also much talk about how much better Hollywood models are (especially in marketing), and a general tone of looking for scapegoats.

Only two audience participants, producer Scott Meek and Studio Canal’s Dominique Green, tried to divert the chorus of complaining toward more fruitful areas of discussion — the Internet future and European production models.

A similarly high-profile confab with John Woodward, chief exec of the new Film Council industry super org, was more tentative than productive, given that its personnel had only just been appointed.

Woodward did, however, stress that the Council’s intention, with the limited public funds at its disposal, was not to “stamp out” the many small companies that make up the island’s cottage industry, but rather to help develop a “sustainable British film industry.” This was more, he said, about making some of the smaller guys grow bigger and more professional.

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