About Face

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

Even this staunchly realist enterprise riffs on pop Americana, showing country music, the Carpenters, and Stevie Wonder as being no less integral to mining culture than union suppers and labor songs. Still, the cinematic touchstone for this community is a priceless home video that documents their pickets and protests during the miners' strike, suggesting its makers' own humble commitment to perpetuating a warts-and-all realist tradition.

On the hormonal flip side, filmmaker Genevieve Jolliffe makes adolescence an emblem of social crisis in Urban Ghost Story (Friday, September 17 at 9:15 p.m.). After Lizzie (Heather Ann Foster) survives a car wreck that kills her friend, she is plagued by guilt and/or demonic forces, her trauma exacerbated by unhelpful priests, loan sharks, social workers, tabloid journalists, and academics. Jolliffe brilliantly fuses Loach's documentary-like style with the horror genre, resituating Poltergeist out of the comfortable American suburbs and into Glasgow's oppressive housing projects, where bad pipes, faulty wiring, cavernous passageways, and barred windows set the stage for terror. This realistic approach results in some unsettling ambiguities about whether Lizzie is abused or possessed, and whether the ungodly forces are supernatural or social.

An African slave and an Australian butcher-cum-gentleman take a subversive trip in David Yates's The Tichborne Claimant (Wednesday, September 29 at 7:00), based on an infamous Victorian inheritance scandal. In 1863 Sir Roger Tichborne, one of the wealthiest men of England, disappeared at sea; his body was never found. In the film, when reports surface that the Tichborne heir is in fact alive in Australia, the family dispatches faithful manservant Andrew Bogle (John Kani) to find him, but then reneges on its obligations and strands Bogle in the colonies. Bogle recruits an impostor (Robert Pugh), instructs him in aristocratic manners and Tichborne family lore, and plots to split the inheritance with him. Their return to the mother country results in high courtroom drama, with nothing less than the British aristocracy on trial. "We had aroused the old, loyal England," Bogle reminisces. "The older and sicker the beast, the more savage it becomes." The film's final irony is that the drunken, arrogant upstart fits right into the landed aristocracy.

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

While The Return of Martin Guerre undermined the sexual certainties of its character's French peasant community, the claimant strikes at the heart of British property. With the help of a Barnum-style showman, the butcher-baronet conducts a mass vaudevillian campaign to fund his lawsuit, selling working-class audiences stakes in the Tichborne estate should he win his claim. The ad slogan for this redistributive scheme offers working men "the opportunity to buy into the oldest and most profitable firm in the British Isles--the aristocracy!" As for Bogle's fraud: The slave uses the master's tools--in this case, etiquette and family myth--to dismantle the master's house.

As for the House of Labour, David Caffrey's Divorcing Jack (Wednesday, September 29 at 8:45) takes aim at slick Clinton/Blair-style political marketing through a violently funny and political noir setup that recalls Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. David Thewlis plays Dan Starkey, a drunken, cynical columnist for the Belfast Evening News who finds his IRA-associated lover dying of stab wounds, sputtering blood and a cryptic message: "Divorce Jack." Meanwhile, Starkey has been assigned to guide a visiting Boston columnist (Richard Gant) through the upcoming national elections. They're covering the prime ministerial race of "Alliance Party" candidate Michael Brinn (Robert Lindsay), the front-running televangelical smoothie formerly known as Michael O'Brinn. "What we've got here is the feel-good factor that you Americans love in your movies," Brinn grinningly says of his political market strategy. "Thirty years of [violence] and then Oil Slick comes along with a full set of teeth and some trendy platitudes, and everyone thinks, 'How refreshing! Let's vote for him!'" complains Starkey.

This jagged thriller takes a knife to Western street-gang conventions, as when it unleashes Loyalist-IRA back-alley shootouts to the theme of The Magnificent Seven. And Caffrey gives 48 Hours-style American race conventions a trenchant tweak by having FTP ("Fuck the Pope") paramilitaries gunning at Starkey and Parker--the latter being a black American who hilariously turns the tables on the skinheads ("I'm from New York City, baby. We chew you for breakfast!") and sings along to the country music that clogs Irish airwaves.

Ultimately, Divorcing Jack counters peppy politics with irreverent humor. "All I'm saying is, 'Give peace a chance,'" says the smilingly devious, sound-bite-spinning candidate, eliciting a snort from Parker. "Didn't they shoot John Lennon?" At least this changing of the guard won't permit American guns--or American movies--to kill off British idealism.


"Changing the Guard: The Festival of New British Cinema" runs at Walker Art Center through September 29; (612) 375-7622.

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