Tom Jolliffe on the essential British films…
Article 50 is due to drop soon. Britain flies the Euro coop. With that in mind, and more importantly because any time is a good time to acknowledge it, I thought I would list my essential British films. I’ve collated a list of not only my favourites, but hopefully a diverse mix that represents British cinema at its finest. It’s obviously a very difficult task because whilst I may be bias as a Brit, it goes without saying that we have a very commendable cinematic legacy here. We’ve had our share of classics and delivered an array of film icons such as James Bond (note…whilst I adore the legacy and there have been some classic JB films, I’ve opted for a slightly less obvious listing).
Without further ado, here are my essential British films:
Withnail & I
Any film student worth their salt will tell you that absolutely essential viewing is Withnail & I. When I started at University studying film about 100 years ago give or take (actually it was 14 years ago) I hadn’t seen Withnail. Within two weeks of starting it became apparent that I had not actually lived, and thus needed to see it immediately. I watched it, I like it but upon that first viewing it didn’t quite inseminate me fully with its genius. The second time I got it. The third, fourth and beyond, the film just got better and better.
This is a film that represents Britain at its cinematic finest. Firstly it beautifully captures the time and setting. Within the opening moments you are fully immersed in late 60’s Camden. It wonderfully balances realism and the ridiculous, a film written and directed by Bruce Robinson, that was based partially on his own encounters during that period (the film was shot shot in 1986). Two central characters who essentially do little more than go on a holiday, but the film is chock full of quotable lines, hilarious moments (tinged in comedic brilliance, but with a measure of the tragic and heartfelt). They encounter, both in Camden and their remote country getaway in Penryth, a collection of diverse and interesting characters. There’s Jake the poacher, the drunken old war veteran who runs a country pub, the “fucking farmer.” Most notably they encounter the iconic stoner, Danny who wants to market a doll “what shits itself” but more engagingly, the wonderfully crafted character that is Uncle Monty. A figure of fun, repugnance, but tragic and sympathetic. Beautifully written, but also beautifully acted by the late Richard Griffiths.
The film shouldn’t work. However it’s so wonderfully scripted and impeccably acted, in a dank, dreary, mud soaked world dripping in detail. Robinson pulls you into this slice of life as one character fully arcs and progresses whilst his once right hand man can only, and is destined only to, stagnate. Whilst the film is thoroughly hilarious it’s those lasting, touching moments that root and humanize the characters which ensure Withnail stands the test of time. It’s a film that just gets better with every subsequent viewing.
When talking about the best British films you could quite easily devote an entire article to Michael Caine. From The Ipcress File, to Zulu, Alfie, The Italian Job, Sleuth and more, he’s done an array of classic and iconic films. However for me, my favourite is the immense, gritty and dark masterpiece that is, Get Carter.
Caine plays a London gangster who returns home to Newcastle to attend the funeral of his late brother. He soon realises that his brother’s death was not quite as claimed and sets about investigating. The further he delves into the murder the more he uncovers and the more feathers he ruffles, all whilst being tailed by gangsters from back South having fled his own situation in London.
Again, like Withnail, Get Carter does something that Britain are almost unsurpassed at, and that is portraying a world absolutely layered in gritty detail. There’s no glamorous Hollywood gloss here. There’s a fine balance between creating wonderfully detailed, yet beautifully lit scenes, full of honest and engrossing mise-en-scene. Get Carter is a perfect example. A film that looks dank, grimy and cold, but authentic, atmospheric, engrossing and gorgeous in equal measure (wonderful photography from Wolfgang Suschitzky). Add to that an iconic score from Roy Budd, Hodges stylish direction, and Michael Caine’s superb performance and you have one of the best British films ever made. You need only compare it to the absolutely abysmal, soulless and vapid remake with Sly Stallone in 2000. Nothing about the film had a shred of authenticity, not a bit of engagement. Caine, not always known immediately as “the tough guy” was so fiercely intense as Carter, he’ll forever be one of the definitive badasses.
It also offered a view outside of London, which was something of a rarity for British film back then. The idea of a depressed, poor and grimy North, struggling under economic uncertainty and posterity probably didn’t strike studios as particularly enticing. However Hodges portrays this area beautifully. Visually striking, and stylistically ahead of it’s time, it’s a great thriller that is difficult to beat. Caine is imperious.