Celebrating everything British
Orson Welles’ looming shadow in the streets of Vienna, Peter O’toole’s sand-swept visage in the desert, Sean Connery’s suave casino persona and the Fab Four wreaking mayhem.
Indelible images from British cinema chosen from the 100 best British films list put out not long ago by the venerable British Film Institute.
After the much-reviled AFI 100 compiled by the American Film Institute earlier, the BFI wasted no time in getting into the act. Speaking of ‘British Cinema’, the question arises — how British is British? Let’s take The Third Man for example, the movie that was voted number 1: the leading man Joseph Cotton is indubitably American, and so is Orson Welles, who plays a small but pivotal role!
The producer Alexander Korda is Hungarian and another producer, the legendary David O Selznick, is American again and the cinematographer Robert Krasker is Australian. Or take at random number 71 on the list. Elizabeth has an Indian director — Shekhar Kapur — an Australian lead cast — Cate Blanchett and Geoffery Rush — and numerous other non-British technicians.
(One might bring in the colonial theory for arguments sake — The Coolies And Convicts Strike Back! — but that’s another column). A more convincing argument would be the guiding talent. If the creative minds behind the film are British, it would only be fair to classify the project as ‘British’. I’d like to look at a few films from the 100 list that have been long-time favourites with me.
The Third Man: on this count, few of us can argue with the BFI. Quite simply the best film on the list. Why so? Graham Greene’s memorable script and Robert Krasker’s wonky camera-eye view of a shadowy, bombed-out post-war Vienna should be reason enough, but add to this Anton Karas’ eerie zither score and the brilliant performances and you have all the makings of a masterpiece. All orchestrated by Carol Reed.
The highlight for many aficionados would be the looming presence of Orson Welles, who, in spite of making his appearance rather late, manages to walk away with the film. And who can forget the remarkable cuckoo-clock monologue delivered by him and reportedly written by him too.
A Clockwork Orange surprisingly ranks at a lowly 81. Surely, this controversial, inflammatory film deserves a far higher place on the list than at the bottom? Stanley Kubrick managed to successfully shock the British establishment to the extent that the film stayed banned for many years.
True, it did raise concerns about the graphic, almost sadistic violence shown. But it’s a startling piece of cinema. Kubrick again uses the lovely white set designs he had introduced in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He uses classical music again, but not without distorting it electronically first. He even makes Malcolm McDowell turn in a decent performance. In one of his two good performances (the other being in If…; No. 12 on the list),
Though the superior Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life did not make it to the list, Life Of Brian is a good representative of the Python canon. Controversial because it made much ribald humour from the life of a certain Brian who was born in the Judea around the same time as a more famous baby who was born in a manger… You get the picture. Yet, what seemed shocking in the late 70s seems tame now. But the humour is intact, side-splittingly so. Very British, very politically incorrect and very very funny.
With Gregory’s Girl, it is British whimsy at its best. Bill Forsyth’s sweet-natured Scottish film about a gawky adolescent boy in love is a classic of regional movie-making. The accent the characters talk in, the locale, the town locals are all uncompromisingly, unapologetically Scottish. And then there’s Forsyth’s peculiarly charming humour that makes Gregory’s Girl a one of a kind coming of age romance.
saw Chariots of Fire very recently again (perhaps for the 10th time or so) and exhilarating is still the word for it. After several decades, it still casts its spell — the slow-mo running sequences, Vangelis’ upbeat music score, the tight, sophisticated editing, the rivalry between Liddel and Abrams performed by Ian Charleston and Ben Cross as though they lived the roles, the ensemble performances.
Kes is my personal favourite in the canon. It’s a wonderful and welcome surprise to see Ken Loach’s extraordinary movie make the list. This story about a neglected, battered working class boy and his pet Kestrel is probably the most realistic movie ever made in the English language: you feel there’s no camera here, no acting — just life being faithfully recorded. Loach is the master of the British docudrama, and those scenes in the headmaster’s office is unbelievably funny.
Just as surprising and nice to see A Fish Called Wanda here. A comic masterpiece and the best thing John Cleese did outside Fawlty Towers. But Wanda will be best remembered for Kevin Kline’s Otto, the dumb hit-man who reads Nietzche and thinks the central philosophy of Buddhism is every man for himself. His Otto, largely improvised by him on the sets, is an achingly funny performance.
So what has really been British about these British movies? Well, the class thing for one: their movies seem to be either about working class stiffs or snobbish characters in elite public schools. And then there’s that classic British reserve and understated humour.
Brit movies have always had a strong regional flavour — London, Liverpool, Scottish, Irish, Welsh — which has made their movies all the more charming and rooted.
The style of most British directors (Danny Boyle excepted) has never been flamboyant or over the top; even gangster movies like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday show restraint — a gritty realism missing in Hollywood movies.
Brit movies also decidedly lean towards the literary and the theatrical. Though we see more Hollywood than British movies, we’ve always found more to relate to in their movies because of our shared colonial past: references to things Indian (mostly food), movies shot in India and encountering both, characters and actors, from the subcontinent.
Most of all, it has been a joy to hear British actors speak the language — Geilgud, Olivier, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas — clipped, rounded, musical, mellifluous, arch. A movie like Shakespeare in Love or The History Boys is a giddy, intoxicating and glorious celebration of Britain’s great legacy — the English language.