SEVEN BRITISH FILMS FROM THE 1990s THAT ARE ACTUALLY WORTH SEEING

Last week I compiled a list of the worst British films of the late 1990s, so I thought it only fair to provide a little balance, and also to show that I’m not a grouchy curmudgeon who hates everything. Here then are my original reviews of seven British films from the 1990s that I like very much, but which I suspect may not be fairly appreciated or even known to today’s film fans.

They’re not obscure films; several had good reviews (not just from me), and some even have their fans, but I do think they’re undervalued. Each started at a disadvantage, in that I saw it was British, went “ugh” and steeled myself in anticipation of untold suffering before being (phew!) pleasantly surprised.

I think my personal preferences are apparent here, and I make no apology for them. I am not a great fan of realism. I like films that have structure, preferably written by someone with a grasp of the rudiments of storytelling. I have a weakness for black comedy – something the British can do better than anyone, when they put their minds to it. And I love Rupert Graves. Who doesn’t? I also liked the very talented Georgina Cates (whom I last saw in Clay Pigeons) and wonder why she didn’t get more of the plum roles she so clearly deserved. (I describe her in this post as “plain”, but of course she isn’t – she was just acting plain.)

So yay! And take note, British Film Industry, if you ever happen to read this blog. More films like these, please.

For the purposes of this post, my definition of a “British” film means a film that is partially or wholly funded in the U.K., or has British leading actors, or takes place in Britain, or is otherwise, indefinably, “British”. In other words, what I say goes.

I was also going to post my original reviews of Small Faces, Orphans and It Was an Accident, to make it a nicely rounded Top Ten, but the page started to get a little rambling and unwieldy so I left them out. But those films are worth a look, too.

 

 

AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE

Tagline: In a world of make believe Stella is about to discover the difference between true love… and real life.

(review published 16/4/1995)

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It has often been observed* that the essence of Cary Grant’s appeal was that he could be simultaneously attractive and unattractive. While only a fool would mention Hugh Grant in the same breath as his peerless namesake, it should be acknowledged that, in An Awfully Big Adventure, Hugh takes a sizeable step in the right direction.

Those who fell for Hugh’s dithering man-about-town in Four Weddings and a Funeral are in for a shock. In An Awfully Big Adventure, as the director of a repertory company in late 1940s Liverpool, he comes on like a matinee idol, but is soon revealed to be malicious, manipulative and dissolute. He sneers through his monocle at everyone, especially at devoted dogsbody Peter Firth. His favourite hobby is corrupting innocence. In short, he is not very nice.

The innocent we are concerned with here is an aspiring actress called Stella, who is hired as an assistant stage manager and develops a passionate crush on Grant. But Stella, who has been raised in shabby respectability by Uncle Alun Armstrong and Auntie Rita Tushingham, is not your average ingenue. She is naïve, but can’t wait to be defiled.

The film is completely absorbing so long as we’re seeing things through Stella’s eyes, watching her blithely misinterpreting everything she sees, or bandying swear-words around without knowing what they mean. Georgina Cates, who has a plain but fascinating face and a creative way with her nostrils, more than holds her own in this role, despite being surrounded by scene stealers like Prunella Scales.

Backstage is the usual alluring mix of desperation and magic, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd and so on. There’s an enjoyable supporting cast – Edward Petherbridge, Nicola Pagett, Clive Merrison etc – hamming it up as variously seedy, drunken, bitchy or bewigged actors.

Dublin does creditable service as postwar Liverpool (the Irish government offered the film-makers the sort of tax breaks that Britain can’t bring herself to grant), the period details aren’t allowed to swamp the picture, and director Mike Newell, also fresh from Four Weddings, keeps it all ticking over nicely. An Awfully Big Adventure is often funny without being Four Weddings frothy – most of the humour has a distinctly bitter tang.

Unfortunately, Charles Woods’ otherwise excellent screenplay, adapted from the Beryl Bainbridge novel, loses its grip after about an hour, when its point of view splits between Stella’s and that of the other leading man, Alan Rickman, who rides in on his motorbike in the nick of time to play Captain Hook in the company’s production of Peter Pan.

Rickman is supposed to be dashing and heroic, but comes across as just a teensy bit camp, and you’re never sure how seriously you’re meant to be taking him.

By the time the film points you in the right direction, it’s too late. “An awfully big adventure”, of course is what Peter Pan imagines death to be, but you’ll have to see the film (or read the book) to find out who dies, and how.

Rickman could have done Grant’s degenerate role with his eyes closed, but then we would have been deprived of seeing Hugh slumped in an armchair, fingers stained with nicotine and jacket encrusted with vomit after an all-night bender.

Grant’s performances in both Four Weddings and An Awfully Big Adventure appear to be contrasting extensions of himself. This sort of acting is less attention-grabbing than the anatomical contortions or meretricious foreign accents of a Day-Lewis or Oldman, but it’s a lot more difficult to pull off, and a lot more fun to watch when it works, which is why I suddenly find myself looking forward to seeing what Hugh Grant does next.

*perhaps most notably by David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema.

 

THE YOUNG POISONER’S HANDBOOK

Tagline: Meet Graham. He’s not your ordinary teenager.

(I was on holiday when this came out in 1995, so didn’t write about it till later, when it was screened on television. I’ve added some details to the original review, which was necessarily very brief.)

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Benjamin Ross’ inspired black comedy (co-written by Jeff Rawle, best known as Drop the Dead Donkey‘s George Dent) is a fictionalised, highly stylised account of the exploits of Graham Young, who in the 1960s systematically poisoned family and workmates. Hugh O’Conor plays him as a spooky little swot who coolly keeps diaries about his “experiments”, provides a deluded voice-over narration, and runs rings around therapist Antony Sher. Ruth Sheen and Charlotte Coleman play luckless family members. Maria Djurkovic’s brilliant production design makes Neasden look weirder than anything in Twin Peaks, but the agonising ordeal the murderer inflicts on his victims is never downplayed or their sufferings ridiculed for the sake of the satire.

 

FUNNY BONES

Tagline: A Zany Look at Two Comedians Who’ll Do Anything for a Laugh!

(review published 17/9/1995)

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Funny Bones is a smart title. It evokes not just laughter but heredity, the grinning head of death and, by extension, the fear of “dying” in front of an audience. This is a film that revels in multiple meanings; more than once, we’re reminded that the word “gag” doesn’t always mean “joke”.

Peter Chelsom’s follow-up to the crowd-pleasing Hear My Song is an insanely ambitious piece of work – so ambitious that even though he drops some of the dozens of balls he is juggling, you’re happy to pretend you didn’t notice. Like his earlier hit, it’s set mostly in his hometown of Blackpool, and even though it drafts in a couple of American faces, it remains obstinate in its Britishness – particularly in its cheesy circussy, seaside postcardy feel.

The American faces are those of Jerry Lewis, in a straight role as legendary funnyman George Fawkes, and Oliver Platt as his son Tommy, a would-be stand-up whose opening gig in Las Vegas is a disaster. But every Hardy must have his Laurel, and when the pathologically unfunny Tommy flees to Blackpool in a desperate search for fresh material, he finds his skinny antithesis – Jack Parker, a natural-born comedian harbouring more than one tragic secret in his past.

Jack walks a fine line between manic and maniac, leaning heavily towards the wrong side of the law. But then many of the best comics have a sociopathic streak that is forever threatening to topple them into real violence and pain. Slapstick is not so very far from splatter, as any Roadrunner fan will tell you.

For the vital role of Jack, Chelsom needed a comic genius, and has been fortunate to find one in Lee Evans – the first British funnyman in years to make such an effective transition from stage and TV to the big screen. Smith and Jones, Lenny Henry, Rik Mayall and the rest of the “alternatives” all died up there, but Evans doesn’t just do a comic turn – he gives a fully rounded dramatic performance with plenty of dangerous edge.

Representing the old guard are Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies and veteran humourist George Carl as Jack’s father and uncle, deadpan ghouls who do clever things with plates. Leslie Caron, as Jack’s mother, gets to deliver a song and a Cleopatra impression. Oliver Reed camps it up as a Mr Big in mandarin’s robes. The film also packs in a French subplot, a drugs subplot, severed feet and a touch of Oedipus, and of course these things don’t all knit together.

Funny Bones scores, though, as a semi-nostalgic love-letter to its director’s hometown. If, like me, you have a taste for rickety ghost trains, and have always thought clowns more disturbed and disturbing than funny ha-ha, then this is the film for you. Imagine what a source of cinematic splendour English seaside resorts could be, if only today’s young British film-makers were not so intent on scooting off to Hollywood to make identikit blockbusters.

But is it a comedy? Not really. The screenplay is not without its chuckles (Jack’s ripostes to a psychiatrist’s probing are as witty and off-centre as Kasper Hauser’s), but perhaps this particular sort of funny business – somewhere between mime and music hall – is essentially stagebound and needs a live audience for it to spark.

Despite advertising that suggests, misleadingly, that it’s a comedy, Funny Bones is more of a memento mori than a laff-riot. Here are the ghosts of British comedy – of George Formby, Will Hay, and Wilson, Keppel and Betty. There are also shades of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose in the sequence in which Tommy is faced with a montage of artistes – knife-throwers, biscuit-tin tapdancers, performing dogs – so inept they make Danny’s clients seem like Tony award-winners.

 

INTIMATE RELATIONS

Tagline: In the Spring of 1956, in a quaint little town, a crime took place, that shocked a nation… This is the true story.

(review published 22/6/1997)

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Repressed Britishness in all its surreal splendour gets a thorough going-over in Philip Goodhew’s Intimate Relations, which like Tim Binding’s brilliant novel A Perfect Execution, is a gripping slice of 1950s suburban noir loosely inspired by a real-life murder case.

Julie Walters plays Marjorie, a housewife who, with her one-legged husband safely ensconced in the spare bedroom, embarks upon a bizarre ménage à trois with her lodger, an ex-sailor and sometime delinquent played by Rupert Graves, and her precocious but essentially innocent 13-year-old daughter, played by Laura Sadler.

It’s a familiar sitcom world of Lemon Puffs and candlewick bedspreads, outward respectability and secret vice, weak men, and dominant women – imagine a feature-length episode of Keeping Up Appearances in which Hyacinth Bucket commits adultery – which at the eleventh hour suddenly lurches into handheld violence.

Goodhew doesn’t nail the shifts in tone as perfectly as Peter Jackson did in Heavenly Creatures, and Walters can’t help lapsing into caricature, but some of the dialogue would do credit to Alan Bennett, and Graves, one of the dishiest and most exciting English actors around, is always worth the price of a ticket.

 

DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS

Tagline: Expect the unexpected.

(review published 12/4/1998)

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Different for Girls is a likeable romance between a post-operative transsexual called Kim (Steven Mackintosh) who composes verse for the insides of greetings cards, and an unruly, irresponsible motorcycle courrier called Prentice (Rupert Graves), an unreconstructed punk who has never outgrown that rebellious adolescent phases. It’s boy meets girl, with a twist.

They used to be best mates back at school in the mid-1970s, when Kim was Carl. Now, after a chance meeting, the renewed acquaintance develops awkwardly into halting mutual attraction, helped along by a spot of police brutality, a dash of tabloid prurience and quite a few raised eyebrows. But nothing too grim, for this is essentially a feelgood film.

It’s not the most promising material, I know, but Tony Marchant’s screenplay avoids the obvious pitfalls, such as mawkishness or excessive political correctness. While the complexities of Kim’s sexuality (transsexual isn’t synonymous with homosexual) are never soft-pedaled, they’re treated as part of the character rather than as an issue. We’re left free to admire her courage and dignity, as well as marvel at her appalling dress sense, so wilfully drab that it sticks out a mile.

Nevertheless, Marchant doesn’t stint on the nitty-gritty. Since most laymen will be as curious as Prentice is about the snip-and-tuck operation, we’re told exactly what it entails, as well as hearing about more mundane but equally fascinating details, such as where transsexuals buy their knickers (Marks & Spencer, if you must know).

There are one or two miscalculations. The New Wave soundtrack (The Only Ones, Wreckless Eric and so on) sounds a little incongruous, even if it is making a point about Prentice being stuck at puberty. And the story goes off at a needless tangent to address the domestic problems of Kim’s married sister (Saskia Reeves), presumably to emphasise there’s no such thing as a “normal” relationship, though it just makes one impatient to get back to the odd couple.

Richard Spence’s directing is quietly cinematic, and makes good use of its locations in the City and soon-to-be-redeveloped Borough. There are lovely character turns from Miriam Margolyes as Kim’s boss, Charlotte Coleman as a catty office junior, and Ian Dury as a repo-man.

But where Different for Girls really scores is in the terrific double-act at the heart of the film. Mackintosh, who in a good light looks not unlike Juliet Stevenson, does such a great job that, by the end, you’ve stopped searching Kim’s face for signs of five o’clock shadow and started accepting her for who she is.

As for Graves, bouncing around like an irresponsible yob on a testosterone high, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that he’s one of the best and most versatile actors of his generation, though not many people are aware of it, because he tends to appear in relatively low-profile, low-budget productions such as this. But don’t take my word for it – go and see for yourself, and you’ll get the not inconsiderable bonus of Rupert doing a Full Monty as well.

 

CROUPIER

Tagline: Life’s a Gamble

(review published 20/6/1999)

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With all the inept homegrown tripe that gets trotted out every week, how come a proper British film by a proper film director such as Mike Hodges, of Get Carter fame, ends up shunted on to a couple of arthouse screens? Croupier, written by Paul Mayersberg, is not without flaws, yet I would trade any one of its scenes for all of Among Giants, Captain Jack and most of the rest of the so-called British film industry rolled together.

Why? Because Clive Owen, as the wannabe write who gets a job in a London casino, possesses one of the most fascinating, funereal faces in films. Because Kate Hardie takes her clothes off yet again, Gina McKee gets killed off, and we’re treated to a stylised slice of London underbelly that shows all those Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels boys a thing or two.

ETA: I made a very crass comment about Kate Hardie here, and she very rightly called me on it via Twitter. I apologise unreservedly to Kate for this. I’m reproducing our Twitter exchange here as I think it’s interesting, to remind myself to think before writing, and perhaps to encourage other writers to do likewise. Also, to prove you can have exchanges on Twitter that are civilised and productive.

Kate: only taken clothes off in 3 out of 42 screen credits actually. And on MonaLisa I was nearly sacked for not. Ta
Me: Sorry! Those 3 films were probably released all in the same month or something & I got the wrong impression.
Me: You were definitely one of the bright spots of British films in the 1990s. I’ll add a note to the blog.
Kate: No, one of them was 6 years earlier. And I fought hard for no nudity in my time and won. Pretty nasty comment.
Kate: from your review it looks like all I added to cinema was 90s shaped boobs. But thanks.
Jonathan Harvey: was gonna say Kate, I don’t associate you with nudity, just luminous screen performances x
Kate: The history of me and on screen nudity is a brief and fractuous one. Thanks Jonathan. x
Me: Yes, you’re right – it was nasty. I apologise.
Kate: thanks. Would hope there was a bit more to my acting career than nude scenes.
Me: I can only apologise once again for a flip remark that was entirely unnecessary. I have no excuse except thoughtlessness.
Me: I’ll flag this on the blog & put an apology there too (unless you want the line deleted altogether; if so I’ll gladly do that)
Me: It’s pretty much an inadequare review of the film from any angle – I think Channel4 failed to distribute the film properly &
Me: we didn’t get a proper press show in time for a review or something. I seem to recall its distribution was lamentable.
Kate: Croupier had a painful release in the UK. Mike Hodges was so unhappy. They hardly pushed it at all. Then it did great in…
Kate: The US and they re released it. I am unsure what to ask you for. A bit of me wants it to stay so people see what gets said…
Kate: about actresses. It proves if you ever do take your clothes off that’s all people say. Thanks for the apology.
Me: Would you like me to leave it, but then add your tweets + an apology from me?
Me: All the more baffling as Croupier was one of the few good British films around. He got messed about with Black Rainbow too.
Kate: he did. I love Mike to bits. But he and I had a big debate about actresses and nudity recently and he was very moving about…
Kate: realising maybe somtimes he asked for it when it wasn’t really needed. He talked about “giving producers their moneys worth. “
Me: No, thank you for your patience. Reminds me to try & be more thoughtful & considerate about what I write. Not a bad lesson.
Kate: he is very honest and wise and has not been recognised half as much as he should be. x
Me: The British film industry has always been rotten about appreciating its own talent. Russell & Roeg got the cold shoulder too.
Me: If those guys were French they’d still be making films & would be getting interviews in Cahiers & honorary Césars every year.
Kate: totally. They treat ageing with so much more respect. He is a brilliantly funny man too.
Kate: I think we both handled this beautifully! x
Me: Yay for us! (er, for you anyway, since I’m feeling quite cross with myself) x
Kate: Don’t be! It proves women fall into the traps too! It’s good. I like us very much! x

 

 

 

WONDERLAND

Tagline: Everybody’s looking for something.

(review published 16/1/2000)

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British film-makers are so useless I long ago abandoned all hope of seeing a decent London movie. Films such as This Year’s Love, Bedrooms and Hallways and, of course, Notting Hill have so tripped over themselves to present a groovy metropolis of cool quartiers and beautiful people that the results have been more like glossy travel brochures than authentic slices of London life.

Thank God, then, for Michael Winterbottom and Wonderland, a film that shares its patchwork structure with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, but owes its characters and situations to nothing but London, though its writer, Laurence Coriat, is French. Her apparently rambling but actually skilfully structured screenplay is set on Bonfire Night weekend, and its main characters are three sisters.

As with most families nowadays, its members lead separate lives. Gina McKee is looking for love through the small ads. Shirley Henderson is a chippy hairdresser whose broken marriage to Ian Hart has left her with a young son, and Molly Parker, married to apparently reliable John Simm, is heavily pregnant with their first child.

Their respective flats are dotted around the London borough of Lambeth, but for work and play they gravitate towards the bright lights of Soho. Meanwhile, their mother (Kika Markham) is being driven nuts by the barking of her neighbour’s dog and berating their father (Jack Shepherd) for his uselessness.

The tensions of city living are expertly conveyed, and the weekend ends in two acts of aggression – peculiarly grubby, British sorts of aggression, with none of the overkill you’d find in an equivalent American story. But my favourite moments were more banal, such as Irish charmer Stuart Townsend subjecting McKee to a post-coital brush-off so casually brutal it made my jaw drop.

Performances are uniformly tic-free and first-rate, but I was particularly impressed by Hart, who nails the role of feckless father so convincingly you feel like storming the screen and giving him a ticking-off. It’s a film full of little everyday tragicomedies, more soap opera than melodrama, but a long way from television; the only small-scale thing about it is the back-to-basics way it was made.

It was filmed with hand-held camera, using available light, minimal crew and undressed locations full of real people rather than paid extras. But Winterbottom and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, unlike the makers of The Blair Witch Project and the Dogma 95 films, which utilised similar from-the-hip methods, are shooting in the middle of the city, in crowded bars and streets, pausing to dwell on faces, or zipping through the neon at lightning speed.

Naturally this leads to occasional blurriness, but the effect is exhilarating and immediate, capturing London in all its tawdry glitter, but without a hint of social-realist dreariness. Despite all the loneliness and quiet desperation on display, it’s far from an unremittingly bleak vision. Its traffic and tower blocks are even rather romantic in an unflinchingly truthful way. My sole reservation is Michael Nyman’s score, which sounds disconcertingly like We Are the Champions by Queen.

 

These reviews were first published in the arts pages of the Sunday Telegraph.

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8 thoughts on “SEVEN BRITISH FILMS FROM THE 1990s THAT ARE ACTUALLY WORTH SEEING

  1. I saw Wonderland around 2008, by which time it almost felt like a period piece – a snapshot of late ’90s London. I recognised almost all the actors, but I didn’t know the third sister; I was particularly impressed by her accent work. Shirley Henderson has a bit of a lawks-a-lordy panto tone (fair enough, she’s Scottish), and Gina McKee (of whom I’m a big fan) sometimes lets her accent drift towards her native Tyneside. But the mysterious actress playing Molly had two slightly different speech modes; working class when she was with her sisters, more middle class with her husband (John Sim) and their friends.

    I was hugely impressed, so I looked her up. It was, of course, Molly Parker who is, of course, Canadian. I became such a fan that I watched every episode of Swingtown. And then there’s Deadwood…

    • I must watch Wonderland again! I really enjoyed Swingtown, though I think it only had one season; I would have been interested to see where they might have taken it after that.

      Yes, Molly Parker is a wonderful actress. I haven’t seen her for a while, but she seems to have been doing a lot of prestigious TV such as House of Cards (which I never got into). She was also brilliant in a peculiar little Canadian film called Kissed (1996), which was about necrophilia, of all things, but very sensitively done IIRC. Worth seeking out if you haven’t already seen it.

      • I actually have Kissed on DVD, one of a stack I bought when my local rental place closed down. It is indeed peculiar – and refreshingly non-judgmental. She appeared very briefly in Boardwalk Empire as Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi)’s wife, seen only once, in a photo.

  2. “Oliver Reed camps it up as a Mr Big in mandarin’s robes. The film also packs in a French subplot, a drugs subplot, severed feet and a touch of Oedipus, and of course these things don’t all knit together.”

    I’ve always suspected Robbie Coltrane knew that his part of the movie (said drugs subplot) didn’t fit at all, hence why he doesn’t appear in the credits. Or in your review…

    • I’d forgotten Coltrane was in this, actually. But please bear in mind the review was written for a print edition with stringent space requirements; it’s likely that I didn’t include his name because my wordcount was limited and unless he was essential to the plot or gave a remarkable performance it would have been more logical to dedicate the space to other aspects of the film.

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