For most of the 1990s, I was film critic of the Sunday Telegraph, and I loved my job. Towards the end of the century, however, something rained on my parade, made my work increasingly arduous, and was one of the reasons I ended up handing in my notice, leaving the U.K. and going to live in France.
Bad British films.
François Truffaut once said, “There’s something about England that’s anti-cinematic,” and English film-makers, as well as Scottish, Welsh and Irish ones, always seem to be falling over themselves to prove him right. Nevertheless, I don’t agree with Truffaut, and would point to, for example, the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, early Alfred Hitchcock, Ealing, Gainsborough, Hammer or Amicus, to cite just a few examples, to show that the British can be perfectly cinematic, when they want to be.
But the last few years of the 20th century were something else. There have always been bad British films, of course, but I’ll wager there has never been quite a concentration of such totally wretched pieces of junk as from 1998 to 2000; 1999, in particular, seemed to be an annus horribilis. I’ll be going on to list some of the worst offenders, though please bear in mind the awfulness evoked here was not an exceptional misstep, but part of an unrelenting tide of sludge. I have not included, for example, Beautiful Creatures, Elephant Juice, There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, Best, Whatever Happened to Harold Smith? or The Darkest Light, to name just a handful. What’s that? You’ve never heard of them? You’re lucky.
And that’s without even mentioning the honourable failures, the films that showed some slight spark of craft or vision, or that might have featured a halfway interesting performance, or glimmer of an idea. But even many of those were an ordeal to watch. My review of The Last Yellow, for example, ends thus:
This film is the opposite of pleasure, but it’s certainly not the worst British film of the year – nothing a couple of dozen rewrites couldn’t fix, anyway.
And, just one week later, I was writing:
Hold Back the Night isn’t my sort of film, but I’m so relieved to encounter a Lottery-funded British movie which isn’t excruciatingly painful to watch that I’m almost prepared to give it a thumbs-up, even though we’re faced with working-class incest even before the opening credits have finished rolling. Luckily it’s a road movie, so there’s no danger of getting stuck for the duration in a dreary council flat, like we did in last week’s The Last Yellow.
These were not films, not by my definition of the term. They were not what I signed up for. At one point I started calling them un-films.
The following reviews are brief, since I usually relegated these abominations to a paragraph or two the end of the weekly round-up, so I could dedicate more space to the new releases that truly warranted it. This was the era, may I remind you, of films like Out of Sight, Ronin, Happiness, 10 Things I Hate About You, Rushmore, Fight Club, Toy Story 2, Three Kings, The Insider, Being John Malkovich, Galaxy Quest and Final Destination. So there was fun stuff around. It’s just that hardly any of it was British.
I don’t blame the actors – in the British film industry, obviously, they have to take what work they can get – but the names of Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Rhys Ifans, Jane Horrocks and Rik Mayall (all of whom have done decent work at other points of their careers) all cropped up so regularly they started to become signifiers of the grim and the ghastly.
Where most of these un-films fell down, I think, was at the very first step – the screenplay. Or rather, lack of it. British film-makers still often labour under the impression that screenplay is synonymous with dialogue. They have somehow failed to grasp William Goldman’s maxim that SCREENPLAY IS STRUCTURE. Un-film after un-film lacked even the most rudimentary attempt to tell a story evident in even the crappiest Hollywood movie, or mistook subtext for story, to the extent that I sometimes wondered if the film-makers had even seen a proper film before, let alone made one.
But sometimes, the film-makers had clearly watched one, or maybe even two films before attempting to cobble together their own. Cackhanded nods to Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels were endemic, to the extent that The Bad British Gangster Movie of the late 1990s became a subgenre in itself.
I mean, I understand films don’t always live up to their makers’ expectations, but I really don’t think they should actively torture the audience.
Two last points.
1) To offset the overwhelming negativity of this post, I started to compile a list of underrated British films from the 1990s, my original reviews of which will be posted on this blog in the very near future.
2) If any would-be film-makers are reading this, please tie yourself to a chair and watch, say, Rosemary’s Baby, again and again. Watch until you understand why the camera is where it is, why this or that bit of dialogue exists, why the characters are doing what they’re doing, how the story unfolds. Watch that, or any other proper film, until you begin to get a glimmer of how it’s made. Then try to copy that.
But now – the Hall of Shame.
THE 13 WORST BRITISH FILMS of 1998-2000
(in chronological order)
BRING ME THE HEAD OF MAVIS DAVIS
(review published 18/1/1998)
Tagline: Marty’s about to make a killing in the music business.
In theory, one has nothing against films in which the lives of popular songstresses are imperilled – I entertain such thoughts about Celine Dion all the time – but Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis is so awful I can barely bring myself to review it. Rik Mayall (whose presence now signals the kiss of death on any movie) plays a manager who tries to kill off his protégée (Jane Horrocks) to boost record sales.
Frankly, I thought I’d died and gone to hell. Avoid it like the plague.
(review published 12/7/1998)
“Mojo” means either a penis, juju charm, influential clout, or a pre-Pan’s People go-go dancer on Top of the Pops, none of which throws much light on Jez Butterworth’s film of the same name. He and his brother Tom “devised” the screenplay from his play*, which was staged at the Royal Court a couple of years ago, and the film, set in Soho in 1958, remains firmly stage-bound.
Ricky Tomlinson plays a seedy club-owner whose pop star protégé, Silver Johnny, is stolen from him by an even seedier Mr Big, played with excellent bad tooth make-up by Harold Pinter, after which Tomlinson is sawn in half and stuffed into a couple of dustbins. His panicked minions, Ian Hart and Ewen Bremner among them, spend the rest of the film locked in the club, arguing about what to do.
One of them turns out to be a double-dealer and a couple of people get shot or stabbed, but don’t ask me what was going on, as I couldn’t get a handle on any of the characters. Maybe they were all abused as children.
*People have told me the original play was good. But I’m not reviewing the play here, just the film.
(review published 30/5/1999)
Tagline: Come hell or high water, nothing is going to stop them…
If you want to know what your lottery money is being spent on, look no further than Captain Jack, written by Jack Rosenthal and directed by Robert Young, whose last film was Fierce Creatures. Bob Hoskins plays the captain of a boat in which tourists take pleasure-trips around Whitby Harbour.
Against the orders of Patrick Malahide of the Marine Safety Agency, Hoskins takes on a raggle-taggle crew – including squabbling sisters Anna Massey and Gemma Jones, lovelorn Sadie Frost and a smattering of other folk whose problems you just know with a sinking heart are going to be solved en route – and steers his unseaworthy vessel towards a remote Arctic island, populated only by polar bears, to install a plaque in memory of the 18th century explorer Captain William Scoresby.
I’m afraid I’m with Malahide on this one. As Hoskins headed out of the harbour, pursued by coastguards and the Royal Navy, I felt like shouting, “No! Don’t let him go! I don’t want to go to the Arctic with these people!” So dire is the voyage, in fact, that when the Cap’n throws a wobbly and threatens to turn around and head home prematurely, your spirits soar – only to be dashed when the wretched crew persuades him to soldier on towards his goal.
The anti-authoritarian stance of the hero suggests that Rosenthal was aiming for an Ealing-esque tale of whimsical insurrection along the lines of Whisky Galore or Passport to Pimlico. Plot and characters, though, are perfunctory to the point of tiresome. The only audiences this film is likely to please are those from Whitby, the entire population of which appears to have been roped in as extras.
(review published 13/6/1999)
Tagline: A love story from the writer of “The Full Monty”
Among Giants, written by Simon Beaufoy of Full Monty fame, is a romantic triangle set on the Yorkshire Moors. Pete Postlethwaite plays the foreman of a gang of unemployed labourers hired to paint 15 miles of electricity pylons in a mere three months. Rachel Griffiths plays the Australian backpacker who sleeps with both Postlethwaite and his cocky young lodger.
The Sisyphean task of pylon-painting is a promising theme, but Beaufoy, alas, concentrates on a romance that is neither convincing nor interesting. At one point – it might have been when Postlethwaite and Griffiths stripped naked and started frolicking inside an industrial chimney stack – I was struck by such an overwhelming sensation of wishing I were somewhere else that I suffered a panic attack and had to leave the screening to do five minutes of Zen breathing exercises in Soho Square.
So there you have it. British films are bad for your health.
(review published 3/10/1999)
Tagline: The camera never lies… it’s a pity about friends
And so to this week’s British shambles, sorry, films. First there was Bryan Forbes and Nanette Newman. Then it was Ken and Em. Now, Sadie Frost and Jude Law, Britain’s new First Couple of Film, star in Final Cut as themselves, more or less. For their sakes, I hope it’s less, as the characters in this vaguely improvised home-movie are uniformly shallow, stupid and self-obsessed.
Jude plays Jude, who’s dead before the film begins. Sadie plays his partner, Sadie, who invites all their friends (including Ray Winstone as a character called Ray) round to their Bayswater flat, where she makes them watch a video. It transpires that Jude has been filming them all in the lavvy and bedrooms, using the sort of hidden cameras that, even positioned at knee-level in low light, have miraculously managed to keep everyone’s faces in focus.
All the dirty little secrets are exposed: drugs, adultery, wife-beating, knicker-sniffing and a shocking lack of rudimentary improvisational skills. Everyone says the F-word a lot. There’s even an on-camera murder, though why the murderer continues to sit calmly watching the video long after he’s been told about the hidden cameras is anyone’s guess. This is just one of many questions that Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis, who produced, wrote, directed and acted in this farrago, fail dismally to address.
FOOD OF LOVE
(review published 24/10/99)
Food of Love is yet another example of the con-trick being perpetrated in the name of the British film industry. Richard E. Grant plays a City banker who reunites some of his old chums to stage a production of Twelfth Night in an English village. I’d rather not waste space on something so inept, but trust me when I say it’s a disgrace.
Stephen Poliakoff, who wrote and directed, should be ashamed of himself*, but I daresay British producers are even now queuing up to fund his next project. Heaven help us.
*I originally wrote “should be stood against a wall and shot”, but that doesn’t sound quite as lighthearted in 2015 as it did in 1999.
(review published 31/10/1999)
Tagline: They don’t take no bull
Just when you thought British films couldn’t get any worse, along comes Mad Cows, adapted from Kathy Lette’s comic novel about the misadventures of a single Australian mother in London. Anna Friel has a passable Australian accent, but that’s the nicest thing you can say about this farrago.
Co-writer and director Sara Sugarman piles on the zany camerawork, encourages her cast to mug horribly (Joanna Lumley and Mohammed Fayed are among the offenders) and fails to impose even rudimentary structure on her material, which lurches drunkenly from one crashingly unfunny scene to the next. Shoot yourself in the head before you see it; you’ll be doing yourself a favour.
THE CLANDESTINE MARRIAGE
(review published 4/12/1999)
Tagline: For better… or for worse
Recent British films have been so inept that to call them films at all seems overly generous. Let us call them un-films. The Clandestine Marriage was adapted from the 18th century comedy by George Colman and David Garrick, evidently by someone (Trevor Bentham) who thinks a screenplay consists of little but masses of embonpoint and everyone saying “Fie!” a lot. Normally reliable actors such as Nigel Hawthorne, Timothy Spall and Joan Collins flail around helplessly.
ETA: “It turned out the whole thing was being paid for by spivs…” Why does that not surprise me. Tom Hollander writes here about the experience of making The Clandestine Marriage.
(review published 23/1/2000)
Tagline: Those who should know, KNOW!
This week’s duff British movie is Rancid Aluminium, adapted by James Hawes from his own “anarchic cult novel”. Rhys Ifans and Joseph Fiennes get mixed up with the Russian mafia, but I couldn’t even work out where most of the film is supposed to be set. Isn’t that Portobello Road? Why is Tara Fitzgerald talking about Exeter? And how in hell did we get to this cricket pavilion? Director Ed Thomas appears to have been aiming for the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels crowd, but misses by several billion miles.
THE WEDDING TACKLE
(review published 13/8/2000)
Tagline: To stop a marriage made in Heaven… a stag night made in Hell!
It has been some weeks since we last had a truly awful British film, but fear not – here comes The Wedding Tackle. James Purefoy and Susan Vidler are about to get married, but he’s still sleeping around. Adrian Dunbar is having an affair with Amanda Redman and being stalked by her psychotic husband, Leslie Grantham. Tony Slattery carries a torch for Vidler, and somebody has been feeding Victoria Smurfit’s pet rats to their python.
Everyone swaps partners, vomits or is horribly humiliated during the course of Purefoy’s stag night, held in a succession of strangely underpopulated pubs, clubs and bars. Writer-producer Nigel Horne concocted the idea for the film during an all-day pub crawl, and it shows.
Normally I would warn you to keep a safe distance from such a fiasco, but just this once I’m going to encourage you to go and see it, so you can experience for yourselves just how utterly inept and pleasure-free a British film can be.
LOVE, HONOUR AND OBEY
(review published 4/9/2000)
British actors enjoy playing lowlife, but unfortunately they’re pants at it. The BBC-backed Love, Honour and Obey is the latest in a seemingly endless series of pretend gangster movies trying to ride the coat-tails of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and aiming for Quentin Tarantino’s blend of conversational riff and ultra-violence, though without duplicating even a fraction of his narrative flair.
Like last year’s equally dismal Final Cut, this was written, produced and directed by Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis (who also appear in substantial roles) and features a similar line-up of actors whose idea of improvisation is to repeat everything a dozen times with lots of F-words, playing characters with the same names as themselves. In other words, it’s the usual suspects – Jude, Jonny, Ray, Rhys and Sean – mugging away as hard geezers with Estuary accents, with Sadie and Denise as incidental totty.
Any resemblance to a story is purely accidental, though there are indications that Jonny’s a dissatisfied mailman who triggers a gang-war between “norf” and “sarf” London. The deadening effect is of watching someone’s home videos, complete with karaoke interludes. It’s a criminal waste of Jude Law’s cheekbones and Kathy Burke’s considerable talents. The BBC recently announced its intention to invest more money in making movies, but if they’re going to turn out stuff like this, then you might as well shoot me now.
(review published 24/9/2000)
Tagline: …The Last Resort
Hotel Splendide confirms my thesis that films with the word “hotel” in the title should be avoided at all costs. Red-faced Stephen Tompkinson runs a dilapidated Gothic health spa where guests are treated to mud baths, colonic irrigation courtesy of Katrin Cartlidge, and a diet of seaweed and herrings served up by chef Daniel Craig.
Into this strictly ordered establishment comes free-spirited Toni Collette to introduce the inmates to the joys of spicy food. This being a subtext in search of a story, order duly breaks down, everybody overacts like mad, and debut writer-director Terence Gross is left at the mercy of his design team, which seems to be aiming for a Delicatessen-meets Terry Gilliam look, but ends up as Gormenghast on a shoestring.
ETA: It’s clear that at least one of the reasons for this superabundance of British dross at this time was an effect of National Lottery money being funnelled into film production. I might look into this further and post a more informed note about it here at some point, though the only book I can find on the subject costs $52, which is way beyond my means. So I might actually have to do some, you know, traditional journalist-type digging.
All these reviews were first published in the Sunday Telegraph on the stated dates.