About Face

"Changing the Guard" reflects the new British cinema's turn toward the personal and the political

Depending on who's keeping score, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) is either British cinema's modern heir or her ill-begotten spawn--responsible either for revitalizing the U.K.'s moribund film industry by pumping it full of commercial blood or bastardizing its hallowed realist tradition with an amalgamation of genteel manners and insipid Hollywood feel-goodism. The plot itself works as film-industry allegory, with Hugh Grant's bemused wedding-goer standing for the British director who chooses the vapid American model (Andie MacDowell) over assorted homegrown types (a theme to which Grant and screenwriter Richard Curtis returned in the recent Notting Hill). Released stateside well before it appeared in the mother country, Four Weddings continues to cast its happy pall over scrappier British exports that American distributors have neglected in their bids for a Wedding look-alike.

Consider "Changing the Guard: The Festival of New British Cinema" (September 14-29 at Walker Art Center), a collection of 11 little-known features and 15 shorts that provide a pungent answer to overprocessed multiplex fare. The filmmakers in this series simultaneously repossess the British tradition of raw, "kitchen-sink realism" (epitomized by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh) while torquing up American gangster, horror, action, cop, cowboy, and road movies, refracting primal class politics through American styles.

Antonia Bird's Face (screening Tuesday at 7:00), a heist-gone-awry thriller that inevitably begs comparison to Reservoir Dogs, samples politics in the way that Tarantino samples pop culture--throwing in snippets of union slogans here, flashbacks to strikers' pickets there, and political jabs all round. Ray (Robert Carlyle), a lapsed East End leftist-turned-thief, struggles to reconcile his political principles with his criminal pursuits, and his domestic commitments with his gang loyalties. "Yeah, well, we don't always give to the poor, but we do rob the rich," Ray explains to his activist girlfriend (Lena Headey) and his staunch Communist mum (Sue Johnston). But after a botched robbery, Ray's brothers in arms (Philip Davis and Steven Waddington, along with kitchen-sink vet Ray Winstone and Blur frontman Damon Albarn) turn on each other when one among them begins stealing the stash and killing off his own.

The black and white party: Robert Pugh and John Kani in The Tichborne Claimant
The black and white party: Robert Pugh and John Kani in The Tichborne Claimant

Face offers no less than a political treatise on socialist ideals versus sordid capitalist realities--a clash that Bird no doubt knows firsthand, having returned to home territory after her own botched Hollywood venture, Mad Love (1995). Where Tarantino's motormouthed thieves endlessly riff on the coolest cultural artifacts, Bird's get down to gutbucket political theory, as in an exchange between Ray and a corrupt cop (Andrew Tiernan) who delivers a chilling lesson in capitalist logic: "Money goes everywhere these days. It don't stop at the door of the police station any more than it stops at the door of the hospital or the school. There are no public servants. There is no public service. All there is is money. And the people who have it." And where Tarantino's hip crooks are also fashionably aloof, Bird's are driven by an antiauthoritarian class rage that, like pop, eats itself.

Deflecting this well-earned rage onto women, Shane Meadows's no-budget precursor to his TwentyFourSeven, Smalltime (Saturday, September 25 at 7:00), pivots on a familiar gangster convention: At the insistence of his girlfriend (Dena Smiles), our hero Malc (Mat Hand) must choose between criminal camaraderie or respectable domesticity. "You know what cleaning is to you?" Malc's girlfriend complains. "It's like moving the major items from around the kitchen to another place in the fucking kitchen. You don't even wipe surfaces." Competing for Malc's attention is his lifelong friend Jumbo (played by writer-director Meadows in a wig), who avoids the gang/girlfriend conundrum by smacking and insulting his clingy, arse-scratching woman (Gena Kawecka). "You're a fucking mingy and I don't want you to come," he tells her of his evening plans. "The blokes don't want you." Meadows's gang of lads steal dog food, rob flea markets, and party; their girlfriends gossip, masturbate, henpeck, and hope for better.



Perhaps Meadows's take on laddishness--the mass-mediated British celebration of boys-will-be-boys baddies--suggests the old limits of the "new" British cinema. If "angry young men" dominated the nation's Sixties sensibility, angry young men continue to command its current cinema, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly male focus of movies as disparate as Naked (1993) and The Full Monty (1997). (Even Antonia Bird tends to choose men and masculinity as her subjects.) Be they be critiques or celebrations of misogyny, enacted by Robert Carlyle or the bullish Ray Winstone, these films read class struggle as a crisis of masculinity.

Which is why a film like the quietly radical The Scar (Friday, September 24 at 7:00) strikes such a revolutionary tone. Directed by the veteran members of the Amber Collective, this love story likens a woman's struggle with menopause to the economic devastation of Thatcher-era mine closings and the physical ravages of strip-mining in northeastern England. The personal becomes profoundly political when May (Charlie Hardwick), a disillusioned unionist and divorced mother who faces the fearful prospect of a hysterectomy, falls for the open-cast mine manager (Bill Speed). "So much for bloody high-minded principles," her alienated daughter (Katja Roberts) mutters when she learns that her mother, at the vanguard of the mid-Eighties miners' strike, has taken up with the enemy class.

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