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Arts + CultureMoviesGod save the film queens at Mostly British Fest

God save the film queens at Mostly British Fest

Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Rachel Ward, Charlotte Rampling, Maggie Smith, Mary Quant, more star in latest edition

Since the last time the Mostly British Film Festival (Thu/9-February 16 at Vogue Theatre, SF) was held, Britain itself has undergone a monumental change. No, not that slow-mo catastrophe Brexit, but the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose passing last September at age 96 ended the longest reign by any monarch in UK history, as well as any female ruler globally. If you find it weird to consider there’s a king now, you are surely not alone: People who even remember a time before E2’s coronation in 1953 now constitute a minority demographic that’s shrinking every day.

Just because “God Save the Queen”—whether the actual anthem or the Sex Pistols’ Jubilee-year “tribute”—no longer has immediate relevance doesn’t mean this most Anglophilic annual local film event doesn’t have plenty of distinguished women on tap. Indeed, that seems to be pretty much the theme in this latest edition of Mostly British, which started in 2009 at the Vogue Theatre and has remained there ever since. The festival’s program is full of esteemed female personages…be they stars “of a certain age,” or figures of a certain historical era.

The latter is the case in the opening night selection, a directorial debut for the actress Frances O’Connor. Emily is about the Bronte who wrote scandalously wrote Wuthering Heights—as opposed to the one who wrote Jane Eyre (that would be Charlotte) or Agnes Grey (Anne). As played by Emma Mackey, this middle sister is considered “strange,” antisocial, sickly, and over-imaginative, thwarting her curate father’s attempts to settle her into a career or marriage. Nonetheless, she does enter into a liaison with a handsome young cleric (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), which provides the raw material for the literary fame, or at least notoriety, she’d earn before dying at age 30. (None of the Bronte siblings lived to see 40, brother Branwell included.)

The names might be real, but this is speculative fiction—there’s no evidence any such romance existed, and Emily as painted here is very much a modern conception of proto-feminist rebelliousness. She pranks, she frolics, sneaks opium, gets a tattoo of sorts, laughs at corny Christianity in church. It’s a handsome movie with all the usual pleasures of a well-crafted English costume drama. But best to park your need for verifiable biographical accuracy in the lobby beforehand. Emily will also open in Bay Area theaters February 24.

The official closer on Thu/16 offers a different kind of look backward. Also rather liberally based on a “true story,” The Lost King has Sally Hawkins as a real-life divorcee (Steve Coogan plays the ex), mother, corporate office toiler, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferer who became obsessed with a man from about 500 years before her time: King Richard III, whom Shakespeare immortalized as a scheming hunchback, usurper, and murderer. But what if he was none of those things? What if the Bard was simply serving up propaganda on behalf of the Tudors to discredit their royal predecessor in the House of York?

Philippa Langley’s real-life sleuthing did help untarnish Dick 3’s reputation—even if she was hardly the first person to suspect he deserved better—as well as to locate his long-lost gravesite, which turned out to be beneath a Leicester parking lot. This latest feature from Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, et al.), who’ll turn 82 this year, turns that story into a slickly seriocomedic tale. Though it, too, might be taken with a grain of salt—some historians and archaeologists involved have claimed Langley (and subsequently the film) misrepresented them in order to cast herself as a plucky David vs. the Goliath of arrogant academia.

Hawkins is not the only veteran actress to get a starring turn at Mostly Brit this year. Natascha McElhone plays a Maltese spinster who gets a belated chance to start her life afresh in Valerie Buhagiar’s Carmen, a picturesque ugly-duckling-to-swan tale we reviewed here during its brief theatrical run last year. Australian screen regular Leah Purcell makes her feature directorial debut with The Legend of Molly Johnson (aka The Drover’s Wife), in which she also stars as a tough 19th century “bushwoman” forced to defend home and children during her husband’s long absence.

Another Oz luminary, Rachel Ward, will be celebrated in two programs: First a Sat/11 40th-anniversary tribute to The Thorn Birds, a popular TV miniseries based on Colleen McCullough’s massive best-seller, in which she starred as a woman torn between love marital (to Bryan Brown, whom Ward wed in real life) and forbidden (to priest Richard Chamberlain). Accompanied by excerpts from the eight-hour series, all three principal actors will reminisce about the production via Zoom. Still collaborators on- and offscreen decades later, Brown and Ward will also weigh in on the Mon/13 screening of 2019’s Palm Beach, a Big Chill-type ensemble piece (also featuring Richard E. Grant, Greta Scacchi, Sam Neill, and others) that was her second directorial feature.

Still, these are all recent celluloid party-crashers compared to some of the fabled female talents showcased in this Mostly Brit edition, whose careers commenced in the 1960s or earlier. Charlotte Rampling plays a spiky former war photographer forced by age and infirmity into New Zealand relocation in Matthew J. Saville’s family drama Juniper. Turning back the clock, a “Great Dames” sidebar revives three seldom-seen early features by actresses who remain at the top of their field fifty years or more later.

1973’s Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is a comedic romance between two shy people on package holidays in Spain: Maggie Smith as a middle-aged English wallflower, and Timothy Bottoms as an asthmatic American college dropout. It was a peculiarly soft, slapsticky interlude for director Alan J. Pakula between such quintessentially hard-edged 1970s classics as Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men.

1969’s Age of Consent was the only film directed by the great Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) after his 1960 Peeping Tom, a pre-Psycho serial killer chiller that was loathed at the time, if critically reevaluated later on. Co-produced by star James Mason, this film offers a contrastingly sunny, lightweight tale in which a world-famous painter returns to his native Queensland in search of fresh inspiration. He finds it in the form of island sprite Helen Mirren, making the most of the era’s relaxed censorship laws (though apparently a body double was used in her nude underwater diving scenes). Then in her mid-twenties, she seems conspicuously mature for this “underage” role. But some painfully broad supporting comic turns aside, it’s a pleasant, picturesque divertissement.

Quite the opposite is Anthony Simmons’ 1965 Four in the Morning, a B&W kitchen-sink-realism entry that introduced Judi Dench (already, like Smith, an acclaimed stage and TV performer) as a harried London housewife with a fussy baby, waiting for her neglectful husband (Norman Rodway) to return. When he finally rolls in at dawn, he’s still in the company of the “pal” (Joe Melia) he’d spent all night drinking with. There’s a parallel plot involving an unmarried couple (Ann Lynn, Brian Phelan) likewise experiencing mutual discord, as well as the brute symbolism of police processing an unidentified female corpse that’s washed ashore. This bleak survey of unhappy lives won some festival prizes. Still, you can see why it slipped through the commercial cracks, despite an early score by John Barry (Dances with Wolves, Out of Africa, Born Free, numerous James Bonds)—by 1965, this sort of miserabilist exercise had already exhausted its audience via too many stage plays and films of the “Angry Young Man” vogue.

Indeed, London was already moving full-tilt in the direction chronicled by Quant, actor Sadie Frost’s documentary about the legendary fashion innovator. Opening the city’s first clothing boutique in the middle of the staid 1950s, insisting “We don’t want to look like a duchess!,” Mary Quant pioneered a youthful, daring, casual yet sophisticated look that arguably had as great a cultural impact worldwide as The Pill and Beatlemania.

Most famously associated with the miniskirt—whose original shock value can scarcely be grasped now—she also championed then-unusual textiles, vivid colors and patterns, tights as outerwear, livelier and more racially diverse models. As her brand reach grew pervasive, adopted by JC Penney and other major US retailers, she extended into fields previously off-limits for a fashion designer: Underwear, cosmetics, shoes, then licensing her name even farther afield. Of related interest is another Sixties flashback, If These Walls Could Talk, which charts the heady history of the Beatles’ own recording studio Abbey Road. It’s directed by one Mary McCartney, so you can guess her list of interviewees is pretty stellar.

Other nonfiction features in the program include Reel Britannia, a breezy overview of British cinema’s backpages, as well as several shouts from locations in the current and former “empire.” There’s Scottish Dùthchas, an ode to the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides; caste-system scrutiny A Night of Knowing Nothing and environmentalist All That Breathes, both from India; and two films about laureled Irish creatives, Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens and Paul Muldoon: A Life in Lyrics.

Also on tap are a pair of recent dramas that helped bring young Irish actor Paul Mescal to the brink of international stardom: Aftersun, for which he just got a surprise Oscar nomination as a divorced father on vacation with his daughter; and the lesser-seen God’s Creatures, in which he’s equally good as a prodigal son whose return is first received by his loyal mother (Emily Watson) as a blessing, then understood as a curse.

There’s still more, including additional Irish narratives (Roise & FrankMy Sailor, My Love); a tale of Thatcher-era homophobia (Blue Jean), con-man thriller Rogue Agent; and a South African documentary about Zimbabwean sommeliers competing at a World Wine Tasting Championship (Blind Ambition). For complete program, schedule and ticketing information on the Mostly British Film Festival, running Feb. 9-16 at SF’s Vogue Theatre, go here.

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