Cinema hailing from the elusive land of tea and Jane Austen mannerisms, is often pigeonholed into plentiful lavish costume drama and skilled thespians. But while the fourth edition of the BBC First British Film Festival (now running in Palace Cinemas around Australia, check the website for more information, including dates) features plenty of both the lush, actorly Oscar bait the region is famous for, it’s a celebration of everything between the buttoned-up period drama and the gritty social realism.
Inspired by the David Bowie lyric “we can be heroes, just for one day”, local heroes is the theme of the retrospective at this year’s festival, paying tribute to Britain’s cinematic heroes from the outrageous to the courageous that offer escapism and uplift. It’s a sidebar that includes superstars of the magical (The Man Who Fell to Earth), the romantic and suave (A Room With a View and Goldfinger), and the brave (Oliver!).
The homegrown heroics stretch beyond the fantastical and the action-filled into an exploration of the work of acclaimed social realist Ken Loach (Kes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley). In his six-decade long career, the two-time Palme d’Or winner has told stories of underdogs, those left behind by an unfair society absent of empathy. Playing his latest feature, the Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, a ripped-from-the-headlines story of social disenfranchisement and struggle; as well as his debut feature Poor Cow and biographical documentary Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach, the retrospective shows the birth of the championing of the everyday in British cinema. With an unflinching socialist perspective and style that invented the term ‘kitchen sink realism’, Loach has been a trailblazer for a genre the United Kingdom has become known for, which includes directors like Andrea Arnold.
But look to the official selection, an impressive variety of Oscar contenders getting their Australian premieres, and there’s that same theme of revolutionary bravery. Centrepiece films are stories of courage: A United Kingdom, the real-life romance of Botswanan King Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Londoner Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), whose union saw opposition from both Britain and Botswana; and A Monster Calls, the story of a young, bullied boy (Lewis MacDougall), who, facing the death of his mother (Felicity Jones), is visited by an towering, tree-shaped monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). There’s Trespass Against Us, an action-comedy about a outlaw family lead by Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson; A Quiet Passion, the new film from Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, The Long Day Closes) about revered poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon); and The Secret Scripture, a decades-spanning tale about a young woman (Rooney Mara)’s struggles against social and political tension in 1930s Ireland.
But also a centrepiece is Their Finest, the new comedy from Lone Scherfig (An Education) about a film crew (including Bill Nighy and Gemma Arterton) struggling to make an uplifting propaganda film following the Blitz. True to the theme of the power of cinema to transport through its heroes, it’s the enchanting escapism Britain is known for.