In a recent talk at the BFI Southbank, Danny Boyle made the bold claim: “I am not sure that we [the British] are great filmmakers.” This quote set off two warring factions in my brain. One is the side that’s been writing about film for over five years — and watching it voraciously for even longer. It’s the side that grimly sighs and remembers the dozens of recent fanatically hyped up British debut features that turned out to elicit a series of homogenous shrugs.
Then there’s the side of me that’s a fledgling filmmaker, one short film deep and terrified at the prospect of building a career in the increasingly hostile British film industry. There’s so much to say about Britain right now, and so few means by which to say it (at least in the medium of film). Yes, our homegrown box office hits are Fisherman’s Friends (2019) and Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022), and you might watch one of our government-funded independent films and find you’ve forgotten about it by breakfast the next morning. But it hasn’t always been like this, and my Christmas wish (for the sake of my future filmmaking as well as my own viewing pleasure) is that it won’t be like this for much longer. Consider this a Christmas card to Danny Boyle (with the British government cc’d), asking him to consider whether British filmmakers are the problem, or if Britain itself is shielding artists from their own potential.
This year, our press cohort has fallen over itself to praise directorial debuts Aftersun (Charlotte Wells) and Blue Jean (Georgia Oakley), with both of them triumphing at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) over titles directed by more established filmmakers. (I’d like to throw in some support for the less-discussed and BIFA-ignored Pretty Red Dress by Dionne Edwards, which I slightly prefer to both, for its energetic filmmaking and its lived-in portrait of a Black South London family messily grappling with gender nonconformity.) Last year it was After Love (Aleem Khan), Boiling Point (Philip Barantini), and Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond). Stretch a little further back and you’ll remember the beloved His House (Remi Weekes, 2020), Saint Maud (Rose Glass, 2019), Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham, 2018), Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo, 2017), I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017), Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016)… the list could go on further than you care to read. All have their merits, some I like more than others, but each of these are films that scream “POTENTIAL” without fully delivering on it. Because of course they don’t. What is a first feature if not a place from which to grow?
But what else ties all those films together, besides their debut feature status? All of their directors are yet to make a second film.
We are setting our emerging filmmakers up to fail; the UK film industry is currently little more than a constant stream of empty promises. Plenty of programmes exist to support first features, such as iFeatures, which has aided the development of films like Blue Jean, Perfect 10 (Eva Riley, 2020), Make Up (Claire Oakley, 2020), Pin Cushion (Deborah Haywood, 2017), God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017), Apostasy, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling (Hope Dickson-Leach, 2016), and more. And yet, of that list, Francis Lee is the only filmmaker to have made a second film — and only with the support of American company Neon.
When we’re not hanging them out to dry completely, we are driving promising talent out of the country to seek funding elsewhere. In rare cases, this means Americans funding British-set projects, like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir/Eternal Daughter trilogy (2019-2022), or Lee’s Ammonite. More commonly, this means artists leaving the country to tell American stories. Around half of Andrew Haigh’s creative output has been US-centric, and he’s now based in LA, which is a loss of one of Britain’s most thoughtful writers of character, and one of few contemporary filmmakers who really know how to block a scene. Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold are two of the most stylistically distinct filmmakers to emerge in the 21st-century, certainly in Britain, both of them bringing poetry to marginal lives in ways that are very much their own. Still their careers seems to have shifted toward stateside storytelling with Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2017), and Arnold’s American Honey (2016). (Perhaps we’ll win Arnold back after her catastrophic experience on Big Little Lies Season 2, but it’s too early to tell if her documentary Cow is a homecoming or a brief digression.) And it took Steve McQueen three American features (one a Best Picture winner) to be able to come back to Britain and make his opus Small Axe (2020). Even still, that watershed work that chronicles the stories of London’s West Indian community could only exist on TV, and never got its day in movie theatres.
In one of the most politically fraught times in recent British history — it certainly feels like we’re teetering on the brink of collapse — we need British cinema about Britain that is political, sharp, urgent, and compelling. The current moment should inspire a new wave of politically-charged films, and yet the waters are shallow and tepid. Sure, it’s encouraging that projects from diverse voices are increasingly being greenlit: more women are making films in Britain, and more people of colour, although certainly not enough. More queer stories are being told (although trans directors are conspicously absent from the list of filmmakers above, perhaps because the transphobia of British institutions outweighs their desire to appear progressive).
But what use is providing one-off funding to the next generation when you have no interest in cultivating artists, and allowing them to have a career? It takes skill and practice to make a film that speaks meaningfully to the current moment, discussing political systems and personal plights in a way that’s poetic rather than trite. There’s a multitude of reasons that we aren’t seeing that in our national cinema, but it’s certainly partly because we aren’t allowing filmmakers to grow into the kinds of artists that can achieve something that profound. We aren’t providing them the freedom to work in an unconventional way, if that’s what they need to achieve results. Hell, even an old hand like Mike Leigh is struggling to get a project off the ground, even though it’s hard to think of a film more resonant to contemporary London than his nearly thirty-year-old film Naked (perhaps double billed with his 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, to compare and contrast a nihilist’s and optimist’s views of the city). It amounts to nothing more than good PR for the arts sector, rather than actually equalising the cinematic voice of the nation.
In my state of depression about the country’s myriad legislative clusterfucks, the lack of political conviction and poetry in our filmmaking, and my own depressing career prospects, I found myself drawn back over half a century to the British New Wave. These films, which were predominantly produced in the early 1960s, massively shaped how British cinema is thought of and talked about, particularly since it originated the term ‘kitchen sink drama’, still hurled around today, and sometimes in a derogatory context. Watching Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1962) was a shock to the system. Somehow, cultural memory has marked these films as oppressive and traumatic, when some of them are filled with life, youthful energy, and visual beauty — if also accompanied by harsh truths.
These were films primarily concerned with working class lives, particularly in the North of England, responding to a lack of those stories in the British cinema landscape. They treated their characters as complex, thorny people; at turns bitter, humorous, sexy, and mad as hell (another label attached to the movement is ‘angry young men’). These were progressive films for their time, discussing class, misogyny, and various taboo subjects with more frankness than you’d find in most other contemporaneous films. And most importantly of all, they were largely compelling and exquisitely crafted.
The L-Shaped Room (1962) is a personal favourite of mine, and despite being an outlier as one of the few films in the movement to centre on a female protagonist, I think it represents a lot of the strengths of the New Wave. Directed by Bryan Forbes (Whistle Down the Wind, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Stepford Wives), the film follows a French woman named Jane (Leslie Caron) who moves into a rundown Notting Hill boarding house and grows to know and love its residents. Here we have an expertly directed ensemble drama with a strong sense of place (it is named after its setting, after all), that is matter-of-fact about the difficulties faced by working class people, but still holds so much compassion and warmth for its characters. The way The L-Shaped Room depicts outsiders on the fringes of society feels surprisingly modern: it’s primarily about the stigma surrounding single motherhood, and the film discusses abortion; it also features multiple queer characters, including a Black immigrant who Jane befriends when she moves next door to him. It’s much less of a difficult watch than something like the blisteringly rageful Look Back in Anger (1959), because the angry young man here (Tom Bell’s Toby) isn’t the lead character, but supporting to Jane (and he’s not nearly as awful as Richard Burton’s Jimmy Porter in Anger, because who is). But The L-Shaped Room still ends on an achingly melancholy note that provokes anger at the system that has left its characters with no good or easy choices.
Crucially, this New Wave, which had ripple effects that are still felt in British cinema today, was not achieved by waiting patiently for the establishment to act. In fact, you can trace a lot of its films back to one production company: Woodfall Film Productions, founded by Tony Richardson, John Osborne, and Harry Saltzman, who wanted to create a film adaptation of Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. They were artists frustrated by the lack of opportunities to tell the kinds of stories they wanted to tell, and get them screened, so they created those opportunities independently. In the ‘60s alone, Woodfall produced eight of Tony Richardson’s own films. Other significant filmmakers of the British New Wave, several of which were supported by Woodfall at some point, worked frequently throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Desmond Davis, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Jack Clayton, Bryan Forbes, etc. Today’s cohort is significantly less white and male — but it’s hard to pat the BFI on the back for that progress when they’ll never offer contemporary filmmakers the chance to practise and hone their craft (and thus shape and enrich our film culture) as frequently as the New Wave directors got to.
I don’t think the BFI, Film4, or the British government’s (lack of) arts money generosity is going to save British film any time soon. There are models for government arts funding that support rich and varied works — there’s plenty wrong with the French film industry, but you can’t deny that they hungrily cultivate auteurs and greenlight risk-taking films. It’s hard to imagine the BFI ever funding a debut fiction film as challenging as Alice Diop’s patience-demanding, morally murky Saint Omer (2022). Or even any film, debut or not, as challenging as Saint Omer or Julia Ducournau’s car-fucking spectacular Titane (2021) or Justine Triet’s exquisitely strange Sibyl (2020). It’s a goal to strive for, but we’re a long way from having a government-funded infrastructure that supports the regular creation of daring works.
My wish for the new year is that filmmakers in this country find canny ways to make and exhibit work within Britain — about life in Britain — without having to wait to be sanctioned by our arts funding overlords, and that we (as viewers) shift our attention to what artists on the fringes are creating. That might mean independent production companies, or it might mean experimenting with modes of filmmaking that don’t require tons of money, or any money at all (they do exist!). Whatever it is, it will require collaboration, ingenuity, and a little bit more hope for our cinematic potential than that possessed by Danny Boyle.