About Face

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

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.

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.  

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.

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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