Our political relations with the Britain may be strained at present—last month its Defense Secretary said they were looking for new strategic alliances as “the United States withdraws from its leadership around the world” under President Twitler—but our artistic ties are more binding than ever.
No one even blinks at the fact that something like the latest Little Women casts three UK actresses (and one Australian) as the very American March sisters, it’s such a given by now that better actors come from “over there.” America’s “got talent,” sure, but Britain apparently still has far better education and arts training, the things that can most reliably turn talent into actual, versatile, professional craft. The books we read, the television we watch, the music we listen to are more disproportionately Anglophilic than ever, given that their total population is less than one-fifth of our own.
There’e no hand-wringing over that favoritism whatsoever at the annual Mostly British Film Festival, which returns to the Vogue Theatre (practically SF’s last single-screen movie house, now that the Clay’s gone) this Thurs/13 through Thurs/20. Its 12th edition begins with a bit of a flashback: Military Wives is by Peter Cattaneo, whose first theatrical feature The Full Monty nearly a quarter-century ago was a great sleeper success, kickstarting a whole genre of seriocomic British underdog ensemble pieces. (A very good one, Dream Horse, just premiered at Sundance.) Where Monty centered on jobless steel workers training for an improbable striptease act, Wives focuses on another group under duress—the spouses of soldiers serving in Afghanistan—who seek to shore up morale on their military base by starting a choir. Kristin Scott Thomas stars in the fact-inspired feature.
The festival ends next week with a more satirically angled film from the prolific Michael Winterbottom. Greed has Steve Coogan as a wealthy, flamboyant fashion designer whose 60th birthday party for himself on a Greek island is a case study in the publicity-hungry extravagance of “haves” in our era, as the have-nots increasingly scramble for a stray crust. Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, Sophie Cookson and others also appear in this topical mockumentary-style indictment.
In between, there are a number of “Centerpiece” features spotlighted, including Ordinary Love, which opens later this month and has Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville as a longtime couple having to face a serious health crisis; Sorry We Missed You, veteran Ken Loach’s latest, about exploitative “gig economy” employment wreaking havoc on a struggling working-class family; and Ophelia, a well-produced spin on Hamlet as viewed through the perspective of the unfortunate titular character (Star Wars’Daisy Ridley) that briefly played SF last year. It’s a handsome costume drama, albeit not enough Shakespeare and a bit too YA for my tastes.
Friday brings three “Valentine’s Day Romances”: The Welsh comedy Say My Name; suburban London tale Hampstead, with Diane Keaton as a Yank widow who befriends Brendan Gleeson’s squatter; and Glasgow-set Only You, in which a chance meeting has major consequences for two strangers. Later in the festival there’s another love story in Closing the Ring, with Shirley MacLaine and Christophe Plummer as a couple whose involvement stretches back many turbulent decades. It was late Gandhi director Richard Attenborough’s final film, and one that barely got a U.S. release after its 2007 premiere.
Mostly British is named thus because it also encompasses films from other English-speaking nations with an Anglo tie of one sort or another. From New Zealand this year, there’s the documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen, about a pioneering Maori filmmaker; and Daffodils, whose lead characters’ bumpy romance is frequently expressed in renditions of classic Kiwi pop songs, including one by my early 1980s favorites, The Swingers. Australian features include multicultural comedy Top End Wedding, politically tinged drama Hearts and Bones with the always-welcome Hugo Weaving; documentary Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible, about one of the nation’s leading film editors; and Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth. The latter stars Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn as a psychiatrist dealing with his only child’s simultaneous terminal illness and acting-out with a highly-inappropriate beau. The 50-year-old actor will appear in person for the Sat/16 screening, with an onstage Q&A.
Another stellar guest is former Saturday Night Live regular Will Forte, who isn’t exactly the man you’d most expect to represent Ireland (in fact he’s from the East Bay), but will more or less perform that function in showing up for Sunday’s Extra Ordinary. It’s a very funny, off-kilter comedy in which a small-town driving instructor with neglected psychic gifts (Irish comedienne Maeve Higgins) is pulled into a supernatural morass by a washed-up pop star (Forte) anxious to revive his career, even if it means invoking Lord Satan. Forte (who actually made his dramatic debut in another good Irish film, 2013’s Run & Jump) is hilariously over-the-top amidst an otherwise droll cast. Other Irish features include documentary portrait-of-an-eccentric The Man Who Wanted To Fly, and marital drama The Delinquent System, among whose players are Cillian Murphy and Andrew Scott.
We can’t detail them all, but additional titles of note in this year’s Mostly British Festival include the unique Around the Sun, a tricky narrative of variably philosophical and personal discourse between two Brits touring a historic French chateau, written by SF’s own Jonathan Kiefer (who’ll also be present); South African “Thelma and Louise on horseback” Flatland; meditative Indian road film (co-produced with the Ukraine, oddly) Namdev Bhau In Search of Silence; and the intriguing-sounding Bait, a B&W 16mm debut feature from Mark Jenkin that paints an expressionistic portrait of life in an ebbing Cornish fishing village.
Mostly British Film Festival 2020 runs Thurs/13-Thurs/20 at the Vogue Theatre in SF. Go to www.mostlybritish.org for full program and ticket info.