One can dream, but due to inconveniences of time, mortality, and so forth, there will never be a movie bringing together the combined talents of Emma Thompson, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Burt Lancaster, Samuel Beckett, Shirley Henderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Minnie Driver, Gabriel Byrne, Lily James, Olivia Colman, Noel Coward, Jessie Buckley, Ken Loach and Rufus Sewell—though indeed some of the aforementioned havecrossed career paths once or twice. All of them, however, share the spotlight in this year’s edition of the Mostly British Film Festival, which returns to SF’s Vogue Theatre this Thu/15 through February 22.
There are no recognizable names whatsoever in the opening night selection, Molly Manning Walker’s acclaimed debut feature How to Have Sex. At first glance this seems an odd choice for Mostly Brit and its Masterpiece Theatre-friendly audience, as it starts out a raucously in-ya-face chronicle of working-class English youth on holiday in a Greek resort town, where there’s no tangible local culture at all. It’s a 24/7 tourist party atmosphere of the drink-till-you-drop ilk, akin to MTV Spring Break or Jersey Shore. Everybody is loud, obnoxious, and baring maximum skin in fluorescent spandex.
Eventually we realize that the randy sexuality everyone is pushed to express is a bit tricky for Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), who’s embarrassed to admit she’s a virgin. She’s come here with two female BFFs, and they wind up spending much time with three same-aged boys housed one hotel-balcony over. Barfing, peeing on the street, hollering off-key at karaoke, these people make the kind of immediate impression you’d have to be equally drunk to enjoy.
Then after a certain point the misleadingly titled film takes a sharp tonal turn—becoming a nuanced, disquieting portrait of how inexperience, inebriation and slippery notions of “consent” can go very wrong in an environment where almost no one is behaving “responsibly.” While not heavy-handedly moralistic, it’s a movie you may well want any teenagers (particularly girls) in your life to see, as a cautionary tale. After opening the festival, How to Have Sex commences a regular run at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission this Friday. Writer-director Walker will discuss the film via Zoom following its Vogue screening.
Likewise, the celebrated director of working-class British screen portraiture, Ken Loach, will also appear in a live electronic interview after closing night feature The Old Oak, which he says will be his last. Well, the man does deserve a bit of a rest: Now 87, he’s directed 60+ projects for the cinema and TV over the last six decades, from Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969) through The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) to Sorry We Missed You (2019).
All have been acutely attuned to injustices socioeconomic and otherwise, their political critique not softened by his documentary-like “kitchen sink realism” style or frequent use of nonprofessional actors. The Old Oak is an ensemble piece about changing times in a former mining town whose residents still gather at the titular pub—now sometimes joined by Syrian refugees whose arrival not everyone is happy about.
Turning 15 years old this year, Mostly British encompasses new films from various outposts in what used to be “the Empire”—including New Zealand (with rugby period piece Uproar, featuring Minnie Driver), India (arranged-marriage drama A Match, psychological thriller Joram) and Australia (documentary Everybody’s Oma, aboriginal youth tale Sweet As, racy comedy How To Please a Woman, plus the exceptional, hard-hitting immigrant narrative Shayda).
There’s an expansive “Irish Spotlight” whose titles range from home-invasion suspense (Lie of the Land), inspirational sports story (Tarrac) and music-centric documentary (North Circular) to an alternative-history fantasia (LOLA) and Gabriel Byrne as Waiting for Godot author Beckett in biopic Dance First.
Three documentaries provide appreciations of three singular careers. Peter O’Toole: Along the Sky Road to Aqaba and Mad About the Boy: The Noel Coward Story draw on numerous starry observers both archival and newly-interviewed to commemorate an acting giant and a multimedia “master,” respectively. (It is noted that witty “quintessential Englishman” Coward wrote 60 plays and over 500 songs, for starters.) Mark Cousins takes a more analytical, essayistic approach to a screen great with My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock. And the festival’s one revival this year, Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s beloved 1983 culture-clash comedy Local Hero, will be accompanied by star Peter Riegert discussing its making (and working with Burt Lancaster in one of his final roles) on another projected live Zoom call.
There will be some still-alive-and-kicking stars on display in the festival, too: Anthony Hopkins (along with Helena Bonham Carter and Jonathan Pryce) plays “the British Schindler” in fact-based drama One Life; Emma Thompson is mother to Lily James in the romcom What’s Love Got To Do With It?; Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman portray 1920s village residents suddenly neck-deep in the scandal of Wicked Little Letters; Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Shirley Henderson are among those embroiled in another black-comedy intrigue, The Trouble With Jessica.
Other films in Mostly British this year include relationship drama The Wife and Her House Husband; Pretty Red Dress, in which an unexpected jones for crossdressing complicates a South London family’s life; and the documentary Name Me Lawand, about a hearing-impaired Kurdish boy’s metamorphosis at Derby’s School for the Deaf. There are also parties before or after certain screenings at other locations in the Vogue’s neighborhood.
MOSTLY BRITISH FILM FESTIVAL Thu/15—22, Vogue Theatre, SF. More info here.