As the film industry becomes evermore global, it’s increasingly difficult to classify ‘homegrown’ cinema.
In the wake of the BAFTAs, a slate of supposedly British films were celebrated for signalling a shift in the film industry that favours British-bred cinema. Among the contenders were Alfonso Cuarón’s stargazing drama Gravity, and Steven McQueen’s emotionally wrought 12 Years a Slave. The press that orbits Gravity’s success as a British industrial venture underscores the ambiguity of the British film: when cinema is a global artefact composed of a multiplicity of national identities, what is so British about British film?
British technicians lent their craftsmanship, but a second glance at Gravity’s gene pool reveals an assortment of nationalities
The film industry is experiencing a boom, according to recent financial figures, with an impressive turn of profit in the past two years. No doubt indebted to the HM Revenue and Customs tax relief, attention has been turned toward British shores for film production, amounting in more investment in the British film industry. British technicians, filmmakers and production houses alike lend their apt craftsmanship to better the industry, but a second glance at Gravity’s gene pool reveals an assortment of nationalities. Similarly, 12 Years a Slave is a British film about American history.
So, what makes a film British? One resolve is to check 18 boxes out of the 35 of the British Film Institute’s (BFI) ‘Cultural Test‘; however, like the classification of a film on a five-star scale in film criticism, this process is relative. For example, if a film measures a 22, then how much less British can it be than a full-blown 35? This test does not account for audience identification either – British character is subject to diversity, and the screen offers only an interpretation of that.
All this uproar followed the post-BAFTA British claims to Gravity. As certain critics have been quick to point out, award ceremonies are selective and often exclude more than celebrate a diverse palate for cinema. More surprisingly, it takes the BAFTAs to recognise that there is indeed a film industry in Britain, let alone begin to appreciate British film. The false sense of prestige awarded by such ceremonies has become a crux to the industry, helping to validate as much as maintain a hierarchy for a small bracket of reclusive taste.
British film is humane, elusive and diverse – it is often tethered to reality and not trivialised by grand, excessive embellishments
Historically, New Hollywood of the 1970s established a cinematic form confounded in spectacle and experiments with grandeur. This post-classical period ushered in the age of the blockbuster, and provokes what academics have begun to look towards as cinema’s digression into, as film theorist Tom Gunning coins it, the ‘Cinema of Attractions’. An exhibitionist form that embraces artifice, the cinema of attractions draws a line between British film and its American counterpart.
British character is more humane, elusive and diverse – it is often tethered to reality and not trivialised by excessive and grand embellishments. The exteriors are waxed in mute textures of the everyday, whilst the interiors are brimming with social, political and cultural anxieties. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, for example, offers a troubled interpretation of youth in what Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw cites as a “Broken Britain”. In contrast, Hollywood continues to foster its brand of studio film, coated in lavish and ornate aesthetics. This is not to be dismissive, rather indicate that British cinema’s gesture of authenticity situates it as an oddity to the mainstream.
More on British cinema: How to kickstart the UK film industry
Kitchen sink drama and the heritage film, such as Chariots of Fire and other costume dramas, reveal the yesterday-ness of British cinema. Tom Hooper’s critically acclaimed historical drama, The King’s Speech, has an imbued sense of nostalgia that is reminiscent of the depth and breadth of the rich British identity presented on screen – this identity is constructed via a recollection of a national history. Context is crucial to British cinema; however younger audiences may not connect with, or recognise, the themes or scenarios. British film operates in the yesteryears; perhaps its strange allure is its fondness for time and place. As well, British film often cherishes the everyday, whilst Hollywood escapes from it.
The globalisation of the industry has moved filmmaking toward an international identity. It’s increasingly difficult to label British film
A cultural identity is preserved by film and television alike, but is Britain undergoing an industrial evolution in cinema? A new crop of filmmakers has emerged in the sector of independent production; a sprawl of well-nourished and technically apt indie filmmakers has greater access to the tools of the trade than ever before. Speaking to The Guardian, Elliot Grove, the founder of Raindance Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards, posits a ripe climate for film production in a techno-savvy generation of young filmmaker. Indeed, the apprehension of such grassroots operations is negotiated by the system’s inequality in supporting production with distribution. Circulation is selective and limited by cinema chains, and highlights the domestic market’s appetite for American cinema over its British counterpart.
The difficulties faced by British cinema underpin political tensions as much as the struggle to assimilate into the mainstream, and have caused its fragmentation across different styles and genres in attempts to approach the domestic and foreign markets. And as academic critic Nick James notes in Robert Murphy’s edited anthology, The British Cinema Book, the globalisation of the industry has moved filmmaking toward an international identity. It has become increasingly difficult to label British film; it would seem British film is both at once nowhere and everywhere.
More on UK film: Awards ceremonies, and the ‘British’ problem
Featured image: Entertainment One
Inset images: Warner Bros; IFC Films