LONDON — After the wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted the complete absence of British movies from the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the U.K. film industry could be forgiven for an excess of self-congratulation at this year’s extraordinary turnaround.
Yet while last year’s supposed crisis was really no more than a fluke of timing, which meant no significant Brit directors had movies ready for selection, this year’s surfeit is just the other side of the same coin.
New films from Cannes veterans Ken Loach (“Sweet Sixteen”) and Mike Leigh (“All or Nothing”) were always seen as automatic choices for Competition.
Michael Winterbottom isn’t quite in that league, but he’s a Croisette favorite who previously served on the jury. Nonetheless, there was some surprise in Blighty that his “24 Hour Party People” got the nod for Competition — not because it isn’t a wonderful movie (it is), but because it’s a comedy about rock music.
Lynne Ramsay is also a Cannes director — she has twice won prizes there with her short films, and her debut feature, “Ratcatcher,” made an acclaimed bow in Un Certain Regard three years ago. But with three Brit pics already slotted for Competition, fest selectors were willing to offer her only Un Certain Regard for her sophomore effort, “Morvern Callar.”
The feisty Scottish helmer was unhappy with that, and requested a move to the Directors Fortnight, which is perceived by the Brits (though not by the French) as a stronger platform. Her pic stars Samantha Morton as a Scottish supermarket worker who uses stolen money to finance a summer of hedonism in Ibiza.
Alongside Ramsay in the Fortnight is the auteur of Uttoxeter, the bard of Nottingham — Shane Meadows, making his Cannes debut with his third feature, “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands,” a spaghetti Western relocated to drab urban England, starring Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans.
And just to prove that Cannes has got its eyes and ears open for new Brit talent as well as the old hands, the selectors pulled a rabbit out of the hat with Francesca Joseph’s “Tomorrow La Scala!” in Un Certain Regard. Pic, shot on video for just $700,000, is about an opera troupe staging Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in a prison for lifers. It is not just Joseph’s first feature, it’s also her first work of fiction. She’s best known as the director of the BBC’s groundbreaking docu-soap “Driving School.”
All the Brit selections are snapshots of contemporary Britain (or, in the case of the Winterbottom, near contemporary), with a skew toward social realism and the proletarian experience. There’s not a bonnet in sight, nor an aristocratic accent to be heard.
There’s also a strong Brit connection with David Cronenberg’s Competition entry “Spider,” a Canada/U.K. co-production, set and shot in Blighty, starring Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson; and Claude Lelouch’s “And Now, Ladies and Gentleman,” a France/U.K. co-production starring Jeremy Irons and set partly in England.
Neil Jordan has never been a Cannes favorite — several of his movies have been rejected in the past. And he, too, appears to have suffered this year from so many other Brit pics being in contention. “The Good Thief,” his remake of French classic “Bob le flambeur,” failed to make the official selection, but after much maneuvering behind the scenes, is now hotly tipped to pop up as one of the fest’s surprise midnight screenings.
The film is not really British — aside from its Irish helmer and French material, the film is financed by Canada’s Alliance Atlantis and features an American actor (Nick Nolte) leading a multinational cast, an argument that had reportedly swayed the Cannes selectors.
Brit hopefuls that didn’t make the cut include Oliver Parker’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Tim Fywell’s “I Capture the Castle,” Simon Cellan Jones’ “The One and Only,” Gurindher Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham” and Damien O’Donnell’s “Heartlands.”
Some or all of these may well crop up in market screenings, along with other commercial Brit pics, including Brian Gilbert’s thriller “The Gathering.”