Typical. You wait ages for a decent British film and then . . . Well, actually that’s not quite true. It’s been only a few weeks since the release of Sleep Furiously, a haunting documentary about a Welsh farming community, and before that there was In the Loop, Helen and Better Things. Now comes an onslaught of new work, most of it by first-time directors. Three titles – Telstar, The Last Thakur and Soi Cowboy – get stand-alone releases; Soi Cowboy joins a further seven films (Beyond the Fire, The Blue Tower, Crack Willow, The Disappeared, Dummy, The Hide and Summer Scars) in the main programme of a season at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London entitled New British Cinema. The effect is largely celebratory, with only a hint of the fire sale about it.
On this evidence, genre film-making is unfashionable among new directors. The Last Thakur transposes western conventions to the Bangladeshi town of Doulathpur, and the writer-director Sadik Ahmed manipulates his stock characters – a lone gunslinger, a corrupt politician, a mistress craving legitimacy – like chess pieces. The film is notable also for being the first fruit of a scheme, run by the National Film and Television School and the distributor Artificial Eye, to fund features by NFTS students and recent graduates.
The Disappeared brings horror to an inner-city setting in the tale of a teenager coping with the kidnapping of his younger brother. The film mixes pervasive eeriness with some effective “Boo!” moments, and would walk off with the 2009 prize for Creepiest Use of a Housing Estate in a Horror Movie if only Let the Right One In had not been released this year. Both Summer Scars, about a group of adolescents terrorised by an ex-military loner, and Dummy, concerning two young brothers coping in their idiosyncratic ways with the death of their mother, cast fresh light on the coming-of-age movie.
Formalist experimentation is even thinner on the ground than genre, which makes Soi Cowboy and Crack Willow all the more valuable. The former is a patient study of the stagnant relationship between a Danish film-maker living in Bangkok and his Thai girlfriend. Near the end, the monochrome photography gives way to colour and the film warps into a gangster yarn in which the main characters appear in different guises. This device is the art-house mannerism du jour (David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are among those who have employed it) and is therefore only a film or so away from outright cliché. Crack Willow is more abrasive. What begins apparently as a documentary about a lonely middle-aged man morphs into an expressionistic evocation of psychosis that verges on being an endurance test.
These works are compromised only by their air of homage: Soi Cowboy is a bit Antonioni-lite, while Crack Willow echoes the shock tactics of Harmony Korine and the toxic gloss of the promo director Chris Cunningham.Trying to find a common theme in these pictures is a mug’s game, which is not to say that stopped me trying. At first it seemed that grisly or sensationalist material was the unifying factor. Over the course of the 11 films, I noted one case of adult incest, one rape, one suicide, one instance of child abuse, two examples of cannibalism, and a murder tally deep into double figures (including one decapitation, two stabbings and numerous shootings). Throw in a paternity test, and you’ve got an average episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Any season of work is bound to produce overlaps, and it is hardly the case that British film-makers are unique in gravitating towards provocative subject matter. Of graver concern is the male bias in both the gender balance behind the camera (only two female directors in the bunch) and the stories themselves. Time and again these pictures return to fathers and sons, male camaraderie, male identity in crisis. What about that other crisis, the paucity of films in which women serve as anything more than decoration? It was precisely this shortcoming that first drew me, as the father of two daughters, to the animated films of the Japanese Studio Ghibli, in which the protagonists are more often than not young girls who could write the book on resourcefulness and heroism. No year in which Andrea Arnold has a new film out (Fish Tank, released in September) can be regarded as unexceptional, but one director alone can’t represent fully half the population.
In these new pictures, women are reduced repeatedly to symbolic or off-screen presences – a wronged mother whose suffering is avenged by her son in The Last Thakur, one dead mother apiece in Crack Willow and Dummy, a cheating wife in The Hide, a near-mute in Soi Cowboy. There are plenty of female roles in The Blue Tower, but each one – from a tormenting aunt and a disloyal spouse to a scheming mistress – represents some kind of castrating monster for the picture’s harassed hero.
Maeve Murphy is the only director whose film, Beyond the Fire, features a sizeable and complex role for a woman. But for all the hard graft that the actress Cara Seymour puts in, Beyond the Fire is overblown in its treatment of the love story between an ex-priest, abused as a child, and a music promoter who has been raped. Every breakthrough for the woman is eclipsed by another setback in her partner’s recovery, giving the impression of a Top Trumps of trauma. The man wins even that contest.
It would be unrealistic to pick on Telstar in the crop of new films for its absence of women, given that its real-life subject – the hits factory of the 1960s producer Joe Meek (played by Con O’Neill), whose biggest success, performed by the Tornados, lends the film its title – excluded female input fairly comprehensively. In a handbag emporium on the Holloway Road, Mrs Shenton (Pam Ferris) runs a tidy ship, but all is chaos upstairs in Meek’s quarters. You might find a string section rehearsing in a broom cupboard, or musicians dropping marbles into the toilet to achieve the correct consistency of “plop” for the backing track, as the producer presides over banks of switches and dials that resemble a Nasa control desk, or Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Fittingly, he is both Space Age dreamer and monstrous genius. Meek hurls a guitarist down the stairs for daring to request his long-overdue wages, and a songwriter who presents him with a wristwatch looks on as Meek smashes it to pieces when he discovers it hasn’t been personally engraved. As Meek becomes convinced his competitors are out to smear him, visitors are forced to pledge allegiance to him before entering the studio.
There are those films that seem on paper to be dead in the water, and then there is Telstar. It is directed by Nick Moran, an actor best known for collaborating with Guy Ritchie. (Does that make Moran sound like Vichy France?) The cast includes James Corden, whose limited charms have surely been exhausted, as well as cameos from Jimmy Carr, Marcus Brigstocke and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness. How off-putting can one feature film be?
In fact, Telstar is a riot of colour and vitality, from the rickety funhouse set to which much of the action is confined, to the game cast (yes, even Corden). A devil-may-care Kevin Spacey plunges with abandon into the role of Meek’s benefactor Major Banks, who is barking in both senses of the word. O’Neill, who also played Meek on stage, is bravely unsentimental, and there is impressive work from the men in the producers’s unofficial harem: Sid Mitchell as Patrick Pink, his chirpy gofer; J J Feild, looking like a peroxide Jude Law, as the insecure upstart Heinz Burt; and Tom Burke, one of Britain’s most unpredictable actors, as the composer Geoff Goddard, a delicate flower trampled by Meek.
Directing actors is not the only thing Moran gets right. Telstar ironically evokes the soda-pop fizz of a Swinging London romp, and contains at least one unforgettable visual humdinger: a shot of Meek advancing across Hampstead Heath at night, holding aloft a lit piece of paper as a signal to potential companions, only to be met by a line of similarly improvised beacons emerging from the bushes. If that isn’t where the stadium-rock convention of waving cigarette lighters originated, then it should be.
The movie is so almost-great that the temptation as you watch to re-edit mentally the bits you don’t like is irresistible. For a start, the film can jettison those endless flash-forwards to Meek’s breakdown, where he crouches over a bonfire of publicity photos and smashed 45s. And the script is rather smug in its use of hindsight – three instances of Meek badmouthing the Beatles (“They’re a fad”), and one of him bellowing, “The Kinks, my arse!” are too much for one film.
I say these things only because I care. Moran has made a spirited, insightful film that adds to a pop collage that also includes Expresso Bongo, Absolute Beginners, Mojo and Velvet Goldmine. Now for the girl-group version, please.
“Telstar” is released on 19 June, “The Last Thakur” on 26 June
The New British Cinema season continues at the ICA, London SW1, until 9 July. http://ica.org.uk