Contemporary British Film (1980–2018)


© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Perhaps the biggest trend in British film in the past few decades has been its participation in the increasing globalization of the film industry, with writers, directors, actors, and money freely flowing across national boundaries and often making it difficult to associate particular films with any one national origin. Still, many films from 1980 onward have maintained a distinctively British feel. Some of these involved continuities from early years, such as the ongoing career of director Ken Loach or the increasing spread of the Monty Python group of television comedians into film. In addition, British films won the Academy Award for Best Picture in both 1981 (Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson) and 1982 (Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough). This success spurred a string of commercially successful British films, some of them with unusually large budgets by British standards, such as David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984).But directors such as Derek Jarman (1942–1994) and Peter Greenaway (1942– ) also broke new ground in experimental “arthouse” films, indicating the range and versatility of the British film industry as it approached the end of its first century. By the twenty-first century, though, the top talent in British film was freely floating back and forth between Britain and Hollywood.

The films emanating from the Python group, beginning with their own Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) have included a number of comic classics. Members of the Monty Python comedy troupe also went on the star in such films as John Cleese’s hit A Fish Called Wanda (1988, directed by Charles Chrichton), which also featured Michael Palin, who himself starred in the food-rationing comedy A Private Function (1984). The most successful director among the Python group is its only American member, Terry Gilliam, who directed such quirky, cult-hit fantasy films as Time Bandits (1981, a British production) and Brazil (1985, a joint American-British production) in the 1980s. Gilliam’s films, while showing some of the trademark zany Python humor, also feature strikingly original visuals that reside well within the realm of the postmodern.

More avant-garde version of postmodernism can be found in the films of Greenaway and Jarman, the latter of whom initially came to prominence as a set designer, first for stage plays, and then for films such as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). His own breakthrough as a feature-film director came with Sebastiane (1976), one of the first British films to portray gay sexuality in a positive light. Jarman also campaigned extensively in favor of gay rights and for AIDS awareness. Jarman’s punk-rock film Juiblee (1978) has become a cult hit. His own daring adaptation of The Tempest (1979) drew mixed reactions from Shakespearean critics and scholars. It did help Jarman to gain the recognition that helped him get his masterwork, Caravaggio (1986) on film and into theaters, partly with funding from the British Film Institute. Based on the life of Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), this film employs a number of postmodernist techniques, including the anachronistic introduction of elements from the late twentieth century unto the Renaissance setting of the film. It also features actress Tilda Swinton in her first film role.

Greenaway, who had trained as a painter and brought a painterly sensibility to his films, the lush visuals of which are often far more important than character and narrative. The 1980s were a particularly rich decade for Greenaway, who produced a sequence of visually striking works that included The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), The Belly of an Architect (1987), and Drowning by Numbers (1988). The decade was then topped off with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), which became an arthouse sensation and Greenaway’s most successful film, though its focus on nudity, scatology, and cannibalism made it highly controversial as well. The 1990s were only slightly less productive, beginning with Prospero’s Books (1991), an extravagant retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Other Greenaway films of the 1990s included The Baby of Mâcon (1993), The Pillow Book (1996), and 8½ Women (1999). The first of these was again highly controversial, partly because of its harshly negative treatment of religion and partly because of what many critics saw as its beautifully filmed but unremittingly unpleasant imagery, including the on-screen dismemberment of a baby. (No babies were actually harmed in the making of the film.) In the twenty-first century, Greenaway (who now lives in Amsterdam) moved beyond conventional cinema altogether, producing a variety of highly experimental multimedia and performance-based works.

On the other end of the artistic spectrum (but also outside the mainstream of British commercial films) were the gritty, realistic films of Loach, whose continuing career featured such politically-charged films as Hidden Agenda (1990, about British state terrorism during the Northern Irish Troubles), Riff-Raff (1991, a portrayal of working-class life in London), Raining Stones (1993, about a working-class man driven to disastrous choices in the effort to get funds to buy his daughter a First Communion dress), My Name is Joe (1998, about a struggling working-class alcoholic in Glasgow) and Land and Freedom (1995, about an unemployed British worker who decides to travel to Spain to fight for the republican side in the Spanish Civil War). Loach has continued to make highly respected films that address important historical and political issues well into the twenty-first century, including The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006, set in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War).

While Loach’s films generally adhere to the conventions of realism, even mainstream British film in the 1980s and beyond (like British literature) often moved in postmodernist directions, frequently under the influence of American models. Guy Ritchie (1968– ), for example, directed several stylish thrillers that were clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), including Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), and Revolver (2005). All three, incidentally, feature British actor Jason Statham in key roles, and Statham has become one of the leading action stars of international cinema with those films and several entries in the Transporter, Crank, and The Fast & the Furious franchises.

The career of British director Mike Figgis (1948) has largely concentrated on experimental films, though he has shown an ability to work in commercial genres as well. He has also made both American and British films. He first drew widespread attention with the neo-noir British thriller Stormy Monday (1988), which got considerable mileage out of a relatively low budget and looked back on film noir in a mode of postmodern nostalgia. In 1995, he wrote and directed the American film Leaving Las Vegas, a commercial success that gained Figgis Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 2000 Figgis wrote and directed the American Timecode, a complex experimental exploration of the kind of formal fragmentation that Jameson associates with postmodernism. The joint British-Italian Hotel (2001) is another experimental film whose narrative is based on the experiences of a British film crew trying to make a film adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613) in modern-day Italy.

Since David Lean’s successful Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), British directors have had special success with literary adaptations. Perhaps the most successful British-directed film of the 1990s was the American-produced Shakespeare in Love (1998), directed by John Madden (1949– ) and co-written by Tom Stoppard. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and the BAFTA Award for Best Film, Shakespeare in Love is an original story, but grows out of the life and work of William Shakespeare. More direct adaptations, especially of novels, have also been central to British cinema in recent decades. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), directed by Karel Riesz and scripted by Harold Pinter based on John Fowles’ 1969 novel, is one of the most clever and complex of these adaptations. Meanwhile, in addition to A Passage to India, E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Howards End were adapted to film in 1986 and 1992, respectively. The first of these was a British-produced film, while the second was an international co-production. Both won Best Director Oscar nominations for their American director, James Ivory, whose films (made with his partner, the Indian-born Ismail Merchant) have often focused on British material.

In one of the more imaginative adaptations of British novels to film, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was successfully filmed by Sally Potter in 1992. Film adaptations of nineteenth-century British novels have enjoyed a resurgence as well, including several based on the novels of Jane Austen. Slightly earlier, Roman Polanski demonstrated the considerable potential for film adaptations that still reside in nineteenth-century British novels when he made Tess (1979), a lavish British-French adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Other landmark adaptations include British film adaptations of novels that came from writers who hailed from outside of England. The Commitments (1991), directed by English director Alan Parker (1944– ), is based on the 1987 Irish novel by Roddy Doyle, who co-wrote the screenplay. Trainspotting (1996), directed by English director Danny Boyle (1956– ), is based on the 1993 novel by the Scottish writer Irvine Welsh. Both of these two films are discussed as exemplary texts at the end of this chapter.

Boyle, incidentally, would go on to become one of the most successful British directors of the years following Trainspotting, directing a wide variety of interesting films. The 2002 British zombie film 28 Days Later, for example, was a landmark in horror film that put a whole new twist on the zombie genre by introducing a new kind of fast-moving, ultra-violent zombies that differed substantially from the slow, shambling zombies that had previously dominated zombie films. Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire (a joint U.S.-U.K. production about a contestant on the Indian version of the global game-show franchise Who Want to be a Millionaire?) is arguably the most successful British film of the twenty-first century, winning the Oscar for both Best picture and Best Director, as well as six other categories. It also won seven BAFTA film awards, including those for Best Director and Best Film.

A number of important British directors have had great commercial success directing films that were primarily produced in America in the last few decades. Ridley Scott (1937– ), for example, burst on the scene with the science fiction-horror hybrid Alien (1979) the science fiction classic (inflected through both cyberpunk and film noir) Blade Runner (1982). In 1984, he directed the now-famous Apple commercial (based on the imagery of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four) that premiered during the Super Bowl to announce the debut of the Macintosh computer. Since that time, he has had a number of commercial successes in film Thelma & Louise (1991), an important milestone in American cinema, and Gladiator (2000), a joint British-American production that was a huge commercial hit that also won the Oscar for Best Picture and the BAFTA Award for Best Film.

British director Christopher Nolan (1970– ) has also had great international success, beginning especially with the American thriller Memento (2000), a key dramatization of postmodern psychic fragmentation. He then moved into top-level commercial success with a trilogy of films based on the DC Comics character Batman (aka “The Dark Knight”) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which also broke new technical ground in their use of special effects (and featured British actor Christian Bale as the ultra-American Batman). The 2010 science fiction mind-twister Inception (a British-American co-production) also uses state-of-the-art special effects in pursuing one of the most convoluted plots in film history. In 2017, Nolan wrote and directed the World War II epic Dunkirk (an international co-production involving several countries), which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Motion Picture and the BAFTA for Best Film, while Nolan himself was nominated for Best Director in both the Oscars and the BAFTAs. None of those nominations led to wins, but Nolan remains one of the most commercially and critically successful directors in world cinema.

In recent years, Hollywood films have continued to dominate even the BAFTA film awards, though a U.S.-U.K. co-production, 12 Years A Slave—about slavery in the American South, but directed by British director Steve McQueen (1969- ) did win the Best Film award in 2013. It also won the American Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. A former video artist, McQueen made his feature-film debut with Hunger (2008), about the prison hunger strike of Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands that occurred in 1981; McQueen’s film Shame (2011) is a drama about sex addiction. McQueen has continued to be a particularly bright star in the British cinema world; his film Widows (2018) is an effective heist film that challenges conventional gender expectations of the genre. In addition, McQueen’s brilliant Small Axe (2020), an unusual anthology of five films made for the Amazon Prime Video streaming platform, provides a striking and innovative view of black British life, history, and culture.

McQueen’s ongoing work demonstrates both the continuing richness of British film and the continuing blurring of the boundary between British film and the films of other countries, especially the United States. New incentives in the 1990s, for example, enticed American producers to increase investment in big-budget films made in England, including films such as Interview with the Vampire (1994), which was directed by the Irish director Neil Jordan. Jordan has also had considerable success (more in the U.S. than in the U.K.) with Irish-themed films such as The Crying Game (1992) and The Butcher Boy (1997). Other U.S.-backed films made in the U.K. in the 1990s include Mission: Impossible (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999) and The Mummy (1999).

British film—like all of British culture—has continued to become more and more multicultural as well. Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (1993) gives much-needed attention to the lives of British women of Asian descent, and was directed by a woman who was born in the British colony of Kenya to a family of Asian descent. Women remain, however, underrepresented in the director’s chairs of British film, though Carine Adler’s Under the Skin (1997) is well worth a look. The Scottish woman director Lynne Ramsay has also gained considerable attention for psychological horror dramas such as Morvern Callar (2002, British), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, a British-American co-production), and You Were Never Really Here (2017, a British-French co-production). Finally, Andrea Arnold has continued the Loach tradition of social realist dramas with women-oriented films such as Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), while contributing to the rich legacy of British novel adaptations with her version of Wuthering Heights in 2011.

Finally, no survey of recent British film (or of recent British culture in general) would be complete without a mention of the Harry Potter franchise, based on the series of seven Young Adult fantasy novels by J. K. Rowling that became one of the biggest commercial successes in publishing history. The film adaptations of the novels have been hugely successful as well, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001, released in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone). The series altogether consists of eight films (the adaptation of the seventh novel—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—was released in two separate parts), all of which were British-American co-productions, produced and distributed by the American Warner Brothers Studio, but filmed in the U.K. The success of these films was a boost to the entire British film industry; for example, several companies involved in generating the special effects for the series are now much in demand to provide effects for studios around the world.