Today’s British cinema and history

I really do not mean to go off on one, but I am, on the one hand in despair about British film’s chosen and preferred subject matter, namely any story involving frocks, carriages and uniforms, yet also delighted when cinema decides on originality and contemporary issues.

It’s been another dense week of screenings with one utterly predictable outing, a film by the renowned Stephen Frears of which he should be ashamed, Victoria and Abdul. Its opening caption, ‘Based on Real Events… Mostly…’ set the tone for a feeble attempt at humour, a myopic exposé of 19th century racism and a script which, despite its opening caption claims was, for almost its entirety, utterly unbelievable. The costumes were great, the acting traditional but the CGI was like something out of a 50’s British studio. A wasted opportunity to be genuinely honest in the presentation of historical facts and accounts. But was I surprised? No. British cinema still panders to endemic ideas and values of deference and a polished vision of power and privilege. The rest of the world may love our costume dramas and imagine that England still thinks it rules the waves – about that delusion I think they are right – yet I am filled with gloom that cinema continues to churn out this stuff, maybe because the more elderly cinema-goer just wants to be reminded of the good old days.

However, there have been other releases that gave me feelings of hope. Debutante Peter Mackie Burns first full-length feature, Daphne, with a singular standout performance by Emily Beecham and stylishly photographed by another debutante, Adam Scarth – a name to watch. Burns gave us the look and feel of contemporary Britain and the existential realities of millennials so convincingly portrayed by Beecham. Another magnificent British film is God’s Own Country. Francis Lee’s first feature may have been seen by some as the UK’s answer to Brokeback Mountain – but much in the same way as Luca Guadagnino’s Call me by Your Name is a film about love, so is this stunning and deeply emotional tour de force. I just think us Brits are best when working on contemporary topics and move away from indulging our national stereotypes in old frocks. Perhaps I am being unfair, because William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, set in 19th century rural England and based on a story by the Russian author Nikolai Leskov, elevates itself far beyond the constraints of Victorian social mores. Unlike Victoria and Abdul which has little if any artistic merit, Lady Macbeth excels in every creative film department.

The screening invitations keep arriving in my email in box and DVD screeners with the post so my evenings are busy. However, at this stage in the BAFTA viewing process my tolerance towards naff films is lowered such that I am no longer prepared to sit in the dark hating a film but am happy to cut my losses or eject the disk and move on to the next. However, works by new directors seem to be pleasing me rather more than those by old hands.

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