By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
One of the great pleasures of attending a film festival is the serendipity that often occurs when one sees one film after another, finding thematic connections or differences between them that delight the soul and stimulate the mind. I had just such an occurrence the other day, seeing two British films back to back. It just happened that the films were screening after one another, but it made me realize how much I love and appreciate both the high and the low in British cinema.
I’ve been a fan of films from the British Isles since I first discovered the beauteous renderings of David Lean and the “kitchen sink” dramas of the angry young men of the 1950s and 1960s. The two films I saw represented both this high (proper Brits behaving badly) and low (working class blokes trying to make their way in the world). I must also confess a weakness for British films that are set in the waning days of the British Empire in India. I find the subject, the drama, the comment on class warfare, utterly involving.
The first film on that cloudy Sunday is a worthy addition to that sub-genre. Before The Rains, directed by Indian director Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist) presents a sumptuous story of love, betrayal and loyalty in the lush jungles of southern India in the late 1930s, when the Indian independence movement led by Ghandi was beginning to take force. In this beautifully shot film, an English spice baron, played with appropriate class privilege mixed with angst by Linus Roche, is the very model of an English ex-patriot, with a wife and young son in tow. But Linus has a secret….a love affair he has been conducting with his female servant. When the local community becomes aware of the married servant’s disgrace, the hunt is on to find the man who has violated her. Roche’s chief aid, a young Indian who sees himself as more British than Indian, conceals the secret and then is implicated. His loyalties are tested until the very last frame. The impossibly handsome Indian actor Rahul Bose gives a startling performance as a man torn between modernism and tradition, a metaphor for his entire country. The film, a US-UK co-production presented by Merchant-Ivory Films (the trendsetters in high end British cinema) will run next month in the US via specialty distributor Roadside Attractions.
Truly on the other end of the scale, yet also about the clash of cultures, is Somers Town, the latest film from UK filmmaker Shane Meadows (This Is England). In this charming dramedy, the relationship between two boys represents the melting-pot of the new England. Tomo is a lad from the Midlands who comes to London to find a better life. Marek is a Polish immigrant who lives with his construction worker father. Each, in his own way, is escaping a past of poverty and dislocation, looking to their new surroundings to offer them both economic and spiritual sustenance. That they are both walled off from the riches of the modern “British dream” is part of what unites the unlikely duo. In the same vein as the films of Ken Loach, England is both the land of ambitious dreams and bitter disappointments.
The Brits are well represented in the Tribeca Film Festival program. Mike Figgis, one of the few British directors who also has found success in Hollywood (Leaving Las Vegas), is presenting the World Premiere of Love Live Long, a film set in Istanbul during the famous high-speed race known as the Gumball Rally. With this setting as backdrop, Figgis has crafted a raw and intimate film that exposes the affects of an unexpected sexual encounter and the high stakes of the race on two strangers. Figgis also was one of several directors to be featured in Tribeca Talks, a series of conversations with leading filmmakers. On Monday at the Directors Guild Theater, Figgis talked about straddling the two worlds of Hollywood and independent cinema, where he is considered something of a film maverick. He is one of the few major directors to have worked in the digital format, bringing eloquence and beauty to Timecode (2000), with multiple screens and recurring imagery. He is one of the founding patrons of the online film community Shooting People and crated a stabilizer for digital cameras known as the “Fig Rig”. A world-class director, writer and composer, Mike Figgis’ work is in constant evolution and his digital works challenges the way we experience film stories.
Other important British films screening this week: Boy A, the celebrated debut of director John Crowley, centers on a former juvenile offender who is released from prison after 14 years. The film follows his reentry into society with the help of his counselor. Newcomer Andrew Garfield (photo below) was nominated for a BAFTA Award for his stunning performance as the hesitant 24 year old who must catch up with his peers while keeping his past a secret.
In The Cottage, director Paul Andrew Williams spins a nifty kidnapping plot that goes horribly awry. The director, known for his previous film London To Brighton, here offers a gory horror-comedy about two brothers and their potty-mouthed hostage who stumble into the wrong farmhouse.
Britain has a long tradition of documentaries and three new ones are premiering at Tribeca. Baghdad High by Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter, centers on four high schoolers (a Kurd, a Christian, a Shiite and a Sunni) who are given cameras to document their last year in high school in war-torn Baghdad. The film offers a rare first-hand account of what it’s like to grow up where sectarian violence rages right outside the classroom window. In Nathan Rissman’s I Am Because We Are, superstar performer Madonna (who also wrote and co-produced) turns the lens on the tragic stories of millions of Malawi children offered by AIDS. The film offers both a call to action and a revelatory personal journey that is a testament to survival, change and hope. And in Man On Wire, one of the hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, director James Marsh chronicles the 1974 incident when New York gasped as French daredevil Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This stunning portrait of an artist of reckless daring and impish charm is also a chronicle of the once might World Trade Center towers, which now hold another place in history as the beginning of the current tensions between the West and the East.