Have British critics gone soft for local films?

On Dec. 8, the U.K. film biz gathers at the British Independent Film Awards to toast the year’s achievements, and Blighty’s film reviewers will be among those cheering.

Wind the clock back 10 or so years, and you’d have found that British movie releases were generally greeted with loud groans from the local press.

This has changed. Look back at the critical reception for the BIFA-nominated films, and you’ll find widespread praise for the efforts of the filmmakers.

The film with the most nominations, David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up,” was described as the “finest British-made prison drama for a long time” by David Sexton of the Evening Standard. The pic received four stars out of a possible five from Sexton, while his colleague Charlotte O’Sullivan gives the second most nominated film, Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant,” five stars. She describes it as “pulsing with life,” while Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian says it is a “richly allusive and moving work.”

Bradshaw agrees that in the past, reviewers tended to give U.K. films a tough time, but he says it was justified. “To be honest with you, some of the British films were terrible,” he says.

Now, things have improved. As well as pumping more cash into the biz, the government film agencies — the U.K. Film Council up to 2011, when it closed, and the British Film Institute since then — have managed to raise standards. The efforts and coin of the film arms of the U.K. pubcasters, the BBC and Channel 4, have also played a major part. At the BIFAs, pics backed by BBC Films have six noms, four for “Philomena” and two for “The Invisible Woman,” while movies supported by Film 4 collected 35 noms, including “Starred Up” (eight noms), “The Selfish Giant” (seven noms) and “Le Week-end” (five noms).

“There was a seismic shift and we are still feeling it now,” Bradshaw says. “What we’ve done is brought the expertise up to the same level as the cash.

“If the British press is being nicer to British films, it is not simply because of a change of heart, it is because British films are something to feel good about.”

Tim Robey at the Daily Telegraph agrees that it’s a strong year. “‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘Under the Skin’ are well ahead of the pack, for me, in terms of directorial vision, but there are a lot of good actors’ vehicles in the next tier (‘Philomena,’ ‘Le Week-end,’ ‘Starred Up’), and ‘Filth’ is much better than it might have been,” he says.

But, Robey adds, 2013 isn’t a vintage year: 2011 was stronger.

Derek Malcolm, a critic for the Evening Standard, also acts as a consultant to the European Film Academy, and helps them compile the long list of films for their awards. He says that this year the British films were better than those from other European countries, even their Gallic neighbors.

“There is no question that the British films are considerably better this year than the French,” he says.

He praises films like Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” which toplines Scarlett Johansson, and Steven Knight’s “Locke,” starring Tom Hardy, for branching out in new directions and being imaginative.

“The British are trying to do something new,” he says. “There is a great variety of filmmaking. We cannot accuse the British of just doing the same old thing.”

He agrees that U.K. critics do seem to be supporting the home team more than they once did: “The British critics are more sympathetic than they used to be, but they have got more to be sympathetic about.”


WHAT: 16th British Independent Film Awards
WHEN: 8 p.m. Dec. 8
WHERE: Old Billingsgate Market, London

(Pictured: “Starred Up” led the BIFA noms with eight.)