British Film Festival 2014

© Jane Freebury

No fledgling event this, even if it only began a year ago. The British Film Festival has come to town with an impressive line-up just when Canberra filmgoers thought the frenzied festival season was drawing to a close.

The inaugural BFF breezed in around this time last year and held its own. Festival publicist Bettina Richter reports that ticket sales for the event in Canberra were the best in the country. Why so, we wonder? Any tongue-in-cheek conclusions about residual affection for the old country or closet monarchists, might be hard to square with the ACT’s rousing support for a republic in the 1999 referendum. And then the French film festival tends to do very well here too. But we digress.

British cinema may translate for many punters into films with reliably solid, articulate scripts and fine character acting, with a penchant for mad-cap comedy, political thriller and grungy social realist or period drama underwritten by high production values. This may well still be true, but nowadays a British film might have a French or Cambodian-born director attached, an American or a Swedish star, an Australian narrator, or benefit from other countries pooling their funding resources and making a coproduction together. Border creep is happening everywhere and like many other national film industries around the world, the British film industry rubs shoulders with the international industry as well.

Testament of Youth, and likely to impress, is a case in point. It explores the life of the British writer Vera Brittain, whose harrowing experiences during the First World War saw her become a deeply committed pacifist. She is played by the Alicia Vikander, the radiant young Swedish actress who was in A Royal Affair, to some rapturous reviews.

American actress Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty) appears opposite Colin Farrell in the latest adaptation of the Strindberg play Miss Julie. They are directed by the grand dame of Swedish cinema, Liv Ullmann. Australian Toni Collette can be seen in the nervy role she usually aces in A Long Way Down, Pascal Chaumeil’s uncertain comedy about four people who bond after they meet by chance while attempting suicide from the same high-rise tower.

A British film that is easier to place, Mr. Turner, is a quintessentially British study in eccentricity and genius, that comes from the inimitable Mike Leigh. His portrait of the great Romantic landscape artist J. M. W. Turner with the lead role occupied by Timothy Spall is getting plaudits from the critics and has picked up a best actor gong at Cannes. Going by the trailer, Mr. Turner looks great, as so it should. While the director’s work has always observed character foible in forensic detail, with disarming decency and humour, it has most usually taken a socially realist approach. Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan story, Topsy-Turvy, took a more flamboyant turn which no doubt Mr.Turner will too.

The terrific British actor Rosamund Pike seems to be just about everywhere at the moment. For those who want to see even more, she appears alongside Billy Connolly in What We Did on Our Holiday. A Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton film that has solid comedic credentials.

For an intriguing perspective on Australia in the mid 20th century there’s the Australian-UK coproduction narrated by Bert Newton, When the Queen Came to Town, a doco of the monarch’s visit in the early 1950s. A ‘high tea’ special event will accompany one of the screenings.
Elsewhere in the program is a debut feature, Lilting, from Hong Khaoh that explores the connection between a grieving mother and a stranger (played by Ben Whishaw) who shares her grief. It has struck critics as affecting and intelligent and has picked up a cinematography award at Sundance. Another film with Sundance festival cred is God Help the Girl, winner of a special jury prize there this year.
Snow in Paradise, another first-time-director feature, premiered at Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year. It concerns a petty criminal who turns to Islam and finds peace, for a while at least.

The latest film from esteemed socialist filmmaker Ken Loach – which may be the last from the 78 year old director, but surely isn’t – is set in violent 1920s Ireland. Jimmy’s Hall also went to Cannes this year. With its particular idiosyncratic style and set piece political argument, it will strike aficionados as vintage Loach. For another perspective on Ireland’s troubles, see the debut feature from young Yann Demange, born in Paris and raised in London, set in a later convulsive decade.

Woven into the BFF program of new releases there are six superb classic titles from the swinging sixties, like Darling the film that made Julie Christie a star, A Hard Day’s Night with a cast that needs absolutely no introduction, and If…, a brilliant, chilling vision of social revolution set in an elite public school. The other three are excellent too.

A blend of quality new releases and esteemed classics worked well at last year’s festival. That was done incorporating the British Film Institute’s ‘top five’ British films of all time. It’s fascinating that the survey of 1000 industry practitioners voted three very fine films from director David Lean–Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations–into the ‘top five’. Once Lean seemed to epitomise British cinema, and the fact that Hitchcock was British should not be forgotten, but it feels like Danny Boyle, Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom may have taken over now.

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