Slow Criticism Project 2014: United Kingdom

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What do we talk about when we talk about Europe? Is it a continent, a union, a myth? For the 2014 Slow Criticism Project De Filmkrant invited critics and writers from all 36 European nations to write a guest column in this wonderful euro-English that is our lingua franca about the state of cinema in their country. Carmen Gray reports from the United Kingdom.

I became a UK citizen recently. It was bureaucratic. It was expensive. It included a farcical test on how to be British. But it was easier for me than for many. A migrant from a Queen’s colony, New Zealand, I was doing it by choice (for access to a European richness of arts I could only dream about when younger), and I’d been trained in Englishness by my grandmother’s nostalgia. Still, the differences disorient. There’s a neurosis stemming from Britain’s harsh class divisions that’s all-pervasive yet unspoken — and which permeates its cinema.

Take Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, favoured by British critics last year. Set in a murkily grey northern England, it’s about about brutish council estate destitution like her prior The Arbor, but is less formally inventive. She based the story of two wretchedly exploited scrap-scavenging boys on a Victorian tale by Oscar Wilde, but stripped away the spiritual aspect for unmitigated dead-end squalor. Sure, it’s technically well-executed. But it lacks vision in its by-the-book adherence to an entrenched tradition of Social Realism that offers little nowadays beyond cathartic release through poverty tourism for privileged-class guilt. More interesting was Joanna Hogg’s unsettling, playfully idiosyncratic and darkly witty take on post-industrial malaise Exhibition, about the marital tensions of an artist couple who are trying to sell their stark modernist home but are anxious to part with the haunting residue of its former, happier, tenants.

Other recent sparks of gleaming regeneration include Andrea Arnold’s adaptation Wuthering Heights, which tore through the stuffy period-drama mould the UK’s also known for with its startling sensory assault. Amid the rise of co-production funding Steve McQueen has taken his bold renegade tendencies to Hollywood and gone more commercial in style — but retained his will to challenge the status quo — with 12 Years a Slave. Riffing with innovative flair on England’s diffident attitude to continental Europe in its tale of a meek sound artist who travels to Italy to create effects for a giallo horror, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio was an odd, darkly parodic delight.

Perhaps the most startling take on the nation last year was Ben Wheatley’s absurdist, unabashedly gruesome A Field in England. Brimming with wild invention, but raggedly imperfect, it received mixed responses. In ghostly black-and-white, it’s set during the 17th-century English Civil War, and throws an alchemist’s assistant together with army deserters. The mercenaries, habitually limited by desperation, mock astronomy and scrying as badly paid affectations. It’s only after they consume magic mushrooms that kaleidoscopic images of collective history flood forth.

Does it really require a radical shift in consciousness — or funding security — for risk-taking experimentation? Two years ago, prime minister David Cameron grotesquely called for profitability to be the yardstick for our cinema. But commercial pragmatism, raised above all else, kills vision — the lifeblood that keeps us human. We need to speak up for the brave.

Carmen Gray is Film Editor at Dazed & Confused magazine and a freelance film critic for Sight & Sound and The Guardian, among others