Signs of rebirth in the British dream factory

Once more, British movies are fighting for a place in the sun. As part of a new campaign to repopularize them, the British Film Institute is about to show off a series of recent British pictures. Some of these will then open commercially in the United States to test their mettle at the box office.

If things go well, we could see a return of the days when British movies were prestige products in the US, with American audiences flocking to such good-quality films as "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning." Because of their shared language, americans used to have a special affinity for British movies. Yet ironically, language has helped cause the decline of British cinema in recent years -- as well-financed Hollywood films crowd native products off the screen in Britain itself.

Inevitably, declining attendance has led to declining funds for home-grown productions. Today, British production budgets remain painfully low, reflecting the splintered state of the movie industry in Britain.

To make matters worse, directors who do manage to finance a project are torn between two audiences: their fellow Britons, and the huge international market that might balk at characters or situations with too English a flavor. And when recognition does come to a gifted filmmaker, it's likely to become a passport to Hollywood, which gobbles up talented foreigners with singular glee. Indeed, Britons have virtually colonized parts of today's Hollywood. Ridley Scott makes "Alien," Allan Parker makes "Fame," John Schlesinger makes "Honky Tonk Freeway," and England's "talent drain" continues apace.

For all these reasons British cinema has been in exlipse for more than a decade. Gone is the time when English studios bustled and Americans were eager to line up for comedy with Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness and social melodramas by Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz.

But there are signs of stirring and rebirth in the British dram factory. More financing is available, particularly from the government-supported British Film Institute. More resourceful producers are emerging. And more British moviegoers -- especially young ones -- are responding to native productions.

Proud of this new activity, the institute has put together a showcase of recent pictures called British Film Now. Assembled in collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it will be screened Sept. 20-25 as part of the 18th New York Film Festival. Then some of the items will move to regular theatrical engagements.

I spent most of last week looking at the series and found it as unpredictable as a roller coaster ride, with films running the gamut from brilliant to awful. Not all the surprises were pleasant, but by and large I found the outlook encouraging.

With all the problems of the past few years, the British film community has kept a good measure of its vigor and vitality. And I was happy to see that British filmmakers have not been distracted from their longtime fascination with social conditions and problems, their perennial concern for the underdog, and their resourcefulness under adverse financial conditions.

According to Scott Meek of the Film Institute, "British Film Now" is meant to highlight worthwhile movies that are representative of current activity in Britain. Thus two of the best pictures were made for British television. In the United States, TV movies are known for their spotty quality and corner-cutting production techniques. Yet Meek reports that British TV has become a major source of funding and exhibition for serious work by serous filmmakers.

No cheapness or sloppiness is evident in Bloody Kids, for example. Though made for television, it's a visually stunning look at a "youth culture" at the edge of anarchy. Scripted by playwright Stephen Poliakoff and directed by Stephen Frear, it tells the nightmarish story of two 11-year-olds on the loose in London -- building a palpable sense of menace and suspense with scarcely a hint of the garish violence that inevitably erupts in Hollywood pictures on similar subjects. It's a striking achievement, though a horrowing one.

The series' other TV-spawned film occupies a different place on the emotional spectrum: The Gamekeeper, by Kenneth Loach. The action follows a workingman through a year of doing his job, raising his children, socializing with his friends, and kowtowing. It also provides fascinating glimpses into current attitudes toward the British class system, a subject that attracts today's British filmmakers as much as it attracted such distinguished forebears as tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson 10 and 20 years ago.

Like many of the movies in the series, "The Game-keeper" deals compassionately with characters who are not very articulate, depicting their lives with documentary-style restraint. The result isn't as powerful as Loach's "Black Jack" of last year, but it maintains Loach's reputation as a distinctly British filmmaker of indisputable international standing.

Michael Leigh's Bleak Moments brings a similarly laid-back approach to its almost plotless depiction of two tongue-tied innocents trying to have a middle-aged romance. Bill Douglas's trilogy of My Childhood, My Ain Folk, and My Way Home uses even more graininess in its autobiographical chronicle of the filmmaker's own youth, revealed in images of dreamlike clarity.

But the last word in documentary-style storytelling comes from Long Shot, by Maurice Hatton, which tells the delightfully scatterbrained tale of a young filmmaker trying to make a film. It's a fiction, to be sure, but you get the feeling that its wry jokes tell a great deal about the struggle to make any British movie, including the one we are acutally watching.

Such a film goes beyond the usual movie categories, and that goes doubel for A Moon Over the Alley, by Joseph Despins. A combination of Dickens and "The Threepenny Opera," it mixes a quirky musical score by Galt MacDermot with a fragmented plot about workers and drifters in a scruffy London neighborhood. It's a picture that breaks all the rules, interrupting rough-hewn story episodes with bouncing songs and bits of odd humor. It's uneven, and sometimes it falls flat on its face. But it has a unique vision, and it sticks to that vision, come what may.

While such films as "Long Shot" and "The Moon Over the Alley" represent the poverty row of British moviemaking, Nicolas Roeg's Bad timing/A Sensual Obsession has a comparatively wealthy pedigree. The production values are lavish and the stars are internationally known: Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliott, Theresa Russell. Unfortunately, Roeg's cinematic brilliance lends insufficient justification to the bizarre tale of a psychoanalyst in love with a kinky young woman.

Derek Jarman is also an established director, but his version of shakespeare's The Tempest is the low point of the series, a perverse, sometimes malevolent and consumingly ugly reworking of what might be Shakespeare's greatest masterpiece. There is more interest to Richard Woolley's Brothers and Sisters, a feminist thriller that makes up in energy what it lacks in coherence.

According to Mr. Meek of the Film Institute, British films may burgeon with great energy in the near future -- since the institute is pumping ever more money into production, and lively new movie companies are beginning to surface as well. And in addition to eager young filmmakers, creative entrepreneurs are becoming more numerous, with the crucial ability to package and promote new projects.

If this trend continues, promising directors may feel more prone to staying at home instead of hurrying to Hollywood as soon as possible. This could boost the prestige of British productions in general, leading to a revival of American respect for British pictures.

"More young filmmakers are making movies on young, current subjects," says Mr. Meek. "These films are of interest outside of Britain, and they could shift the cultural bias back toward Britain's favor."

Conditions are "still difficult" in the British movie industry, "but it is a lot healthier than it was five years ago," he says.

Americans can judge for themselves at the "British Film Now" series and when such pictures as "Bad Timing" and "The Tempest" have commercial openings in the near future. It could be that Britain is about to become a major moviemaking force again. "Our subjects are still tiny," Mr. Meek says. "Unlike Germany or Australia, the government in England doesn't put a lot of money into encouraging film production."

But even underfinancing can have its advantages "Our films are made for love, " he says, "not money."

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