Like a hypochondriac with manic depression, the British film industry swings from elation to despair about its state of health, pretty much according to the direction the wind happens to blow on a particular day.
Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the wildly conflicting evidence. British movies struggled at the box office in 2006, but by any creative yardstick, it was a year of exceptional achievement.
“The Road To Guantanamo,” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Red Road” and “The Queen” picked up major prizes at Berlin, Cannes and Venice. “The Queen,” “United 93,” “Notes on a Scandal,” “The Last King of Scotland” and “Venus” are all running strongly in the Oscar derby.
And even in a year without Harry Potter or Richard Curtis to plump the figures, “Borat” and “Casino Royale” proved that British talent can create global blockbusters with an unexpected edge.
But scratch the surface, and what lies beneath? A lot, as it turns out. Just check out the miniseries category in the Golden Globes. Three of the five nominees were British-made — “Bleak House,” “Elizabeth I” and “Prime Suspect” — and their directors — Justin Chadwick, Tom Hooper and Philip Martin — are the vanguard of the next generation of British film talent. Not to mention Bharat Nalluri, whose “Tsunami: The Aftermath” picked up three acting nominations.
Among rookie filmmakers, Andrea Arnold (“Red Road”) and Paul Andrew Williams (“London to Brighton”) hogged the limelight for their remarkable shoestring debuts. But some raw talent also lurked with little notice amid this year’s slew of self-financed and often self-distributed micro-budgeters.
James Marquand showed real grit and verve with his contempo Liverpudlian Western “Dead Man’s Cards.” In “Night People,” former bouncer and hairdresser Adrian Mead crafted moving and beautifully lensed vignettes from a night of despair and hope in Edinburgh.
Julian Gilbey’s “Rollin’ with the Nines” delivered the first truly convincing British gangsta movie, complete with a thrilling low-budget car chase and stomach-churning violence. Menhaj Huda’s “Kidulthood,” scripted by actor Noel Clarke, gave a twist on the high school genre to deliver an alarming insight into West London teen culture.
David Scheinmann’s “The West Wittering Affair” was an ambitious piece of ensemble improv on the theme of middle-class sexual angst. “Little White Lies,” directed by Caradog Davies from a script by Helen Griffin, who also starred, was a deft tragi-comedy about the crisis of Welsh identity faced with the challenge of multi-culturalism.
Beyond the headline-grabbing performances from the big names (Mirren, Dench, O’Toole, etc.), there were equally stellar turns from less well-known Brit actors who deserve as much praise, but probably won’t figure when the big prizes get handed out.
So kudos to Kate Dickie in “Red Road” and Damian Lewis in “Keane” for the rawest, most committed and ultimately most transcendent performances of the year. And shame on U.K. distrib Verve Pictures for the complete absence of a BAFTA campaign for Dickie.
Eddie Marsan and Tim Spall, both consummate character actors, also proved they can be brilliant leads in “Sixty Six” and “Pierrepoint,” respectively.
Of course, the year had its share of disappointments, including the $40 million teen spy pic “Stormbreaker,” which hit its core audience of 9-year-old boys but wasn’t quite sharp enough to draw wider support. Its international fate was sealed when the Weinstein Co. dumped it Stateside.
Other attempts at mainstream genres, such as “Imagine Me and You,” “Life ‘n’ Lyrics,” “Confetti,” “Alien Autopsy” and “Starter for Ten,” also fell short. These pics, processed by the professional machines of broadcasters and distribs, lacked the edge and originality of the no-budget movies made by rookies who simply maxed out their credit cards and started shooting.
But the greatest achievement came from a seasoned filmmaker, Paul Greengrass, who was given unconditional backing by a Hollywood studio to make a movie nobody was ready to see, using techniques honed in Blighty’s public broadcasting system.
“United 93” might struggle to pass the U.K. government’s new cultural test, but it delivered the most visceral cinematic experience of 2006, and was incontestably the British film of an outstanding year.