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Brits Defy Brexit Blues With International Perspective

beast movie Roadside Attractions
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

If you look to the British Independent Film Awards for a clear snapshot of, well, British independent film, this year’s otherwise sturdy list of nominations may come as a disappointment to you. A branch of cinema that once conjured images for many of stern, rain-lashed kitchen-sink drama and plucky community comedy has a far broader, more international remit in 2018. To wit, only one of this year’s five nominees for British independent film — Michael Pearce’s unnerving debut feature “Beast” — is a British-oriented story from a British filmmaker.

The rest of the category mixes the perspectives of outsiders looking in and vice versa. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, the leading light of his homeland’s recent cinematic “weird wave,” isn’t a newcomer to the BIFAs, having scored multiple noms for his first English-language film, the darkly absurdist fantasy “The Lobster,” in 2015. Yet while that and its follow-up, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” were deliberately placeless narrative, “The Favourite” — which leads this year’s field with a whopping 13 nominations — sees Lanthimos cast his skewed, perverse gaze on that most stuffily English of institutions: the royal court.

Brilliantly led by Olivia Colman (a three-time BIFA champ, hotly tipped for her fourth) as the dim, deluded, tragically desirous Queen Anne, torn between the affections of two rival ladies-in-waiting, it’s a brilliantly caustic, queer comic rejoinder to the stiff, reverent monarchy biopics of British cinema’s past.

It’s not the only depiction of conflicted lesbian desire among the nominees, though “Disobedience,” which shares a star with “The Favourite” in Rachel Weisz, who duly scooped nominations for both, is a more subtly subversive work. Delicately adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel about forbidden love in the Orthodox Jewish community of North London, it’s been brought to screen with a notably textured, detailed sense of place by Chilean writerdirector Sebastian Lelio.

Fresh from an Oscar win for his transgender character study “A Fantastic Woman,” Lelio extends his affinity for female outsider identities in his first English-language film; with Weisz’s protagonist, an excommunicated Jewish Londoner, returning after years away in New York, it’s a film that benefits from the perspective of a sensitive filmmaker likewise straddling cultures.

Two films, meanwhile, find restless British filmmakers traveling — not for the first time — across the pond to tackle distinctly American stories. A third, Andrew Haigh, missed out in the top category but scored a director bid for his melancholic, Midwestcrossing road movie “Lean on Pete.” At the 2012 BIFAs, documentarian Bart Layton won both the documentary and the Douglas Hickox Award for debut directors for his ingenious hybrid doc “The Imposter.” “American Animals,” which narrowly trails “The Favourite” with 11 noms, is billed as his first narrative feature, though this true story of a headline-making art heist attempted by four Kentucky college boys continues Layton’s fascination with the boundary between documenting and dramatizing non-fiction, affording both his real-life subjects and their thespian counterparts a role in the proceedings.

Lynne Ramsay’s brutal hitman thriller “You Were Never Really Here” might not be as experimental in shape, yet it is arguably the most stylistically avant garde of the nominees; stripping, slowing and deconstructing a brief, New York-set pulp novel into a shivering existential examination of PTSD, it finds the BIFA veteran — a previous winner for both her 1999 debut “Ratcatcher” and 2011’s vivid bad-seed nightmare “We Need to Talk About Kevin” — once more in violent, visceral form, abetted by a shattering performance of psychic pain by Joaquin Phoenix (landing his second BIFA nom 15 years after “Buffalo Soldiers”).

None of which is to say “Beast” is the cosy hometurf choice. Set on the isolated island of Jersey, and playing cleverly on the region’s ambiguous national identity, Pearce’s twisty, riveting art-horror film is centered on a young woman’s sexual awakening at the hands of a moody stranger who may be a serial killer. A jointly impressive arrival into the big leagues for both Pearce and his magnetic leading lady Jessie Buckley, it’s a subtly political work that, beyond its core mystery, operates as a subtle but timely critique of British parochialism.

Perhaps there is a throughline to this year’s BIFA nominees after all. “Beast” joins its border-crossing competitors — along with internationally inclined nominees in other categories, from French filmmaker JeanStephane Sauvaire’s harrowing Thai prison drama “A Prayer Before Dawn” to Leanne Welham’s Tanzanian-set AIDS drama “Pili” — to present British independent cinema as diverse, outward-looking and globally collaborative. As U.K. politics falls into the isolationist island mentality of Brexit, U.K. cinema appears determined to send the opposite message.

PHOTO: “Beast,” set on the island of Jersey, centers on a woman’s attraction for a moody stranger who may be a serial killer.