IN WHAT SENSE IS BRITISH CINEMA A ‘NATIONAL CINEMA’?
REFERENCE TO BRITISH FILMS RELEASED DURING THE PAST TEN YEARS.
Dr Fatmir Terziu
There has been a considerable and encouraging growth in the study of British filmmaking over the years, but the question about British cinema in what sense is a national cinema is still complex. As Street pointed out “there is a British film industry with relatively clearly defined economic boundaries…and the cultural conception of what we mean by British films…” (Street, 1997:1). It can be said that five important themes have affected British filmmaking:
“Hollywood’s economic and aesthetic prominence; Britain’s weak production base; the stylistic and thematic variety of British cinema; the importance of class and gender; and …film culture” (Street, 1997:197).
This essay aims to analyse in what sense is British cinema a ‘national cinema’ and to discuss with reference to British films released during the past ten years.
Throughout the early years of the war, the British presence in the Hollywood reached an all-time high, as Glancy described “British film-making was at its peak…and the Hollywood studios recruited the leading British writers, stars, directors and producers…” to this period the way of British cinema “represents a qualitative shift towards objection: the acceptance of a future… ” (Glancy, 1999:157). Later in British film production itself the Ealing legacy was frequently front position. As Murphy expressed “...films convey a striving for ‘respectable’ status, and a concomitant sense of inhabitation” and “…the self-consciously academic style stands opposition…the supposed vulgarity of Hollywood costume epics…”(Murphy, 1997:116) . It is the fact that Hammer Films replicated the American disposition of gender elements.
Concerning Hollywood’s prominence has outlined the major eras in the development of the British film industry in Hollywood and Britain that allowed and sometimes even encouraged Hollywood’s advantageous position. Street explained “American domination has had a profound impact on the British film industry, from production to exhibition” (Street, 1997:2). But in fact important is that Murphy concludes “the responses to US domination which have been available to the production sector of the British film industry in the 1980s and 90s are, however, different from those of the 1920s” (Murphy, 2001:207). It is fact that Hollywood dominates cinema markets all over the world. The few native films that can compete are inevitably identified as making some kind of statement about a national identity. This is true for Britain, but the situation in the UK is different because share a language with Hollywood. But still, films are singled out for praise or criticism because of the way they represent ideas of Britishness.
According to Murphy Hollywood is becoming “less American” and “…the UK has a unique share in contributing to Hollywood production” (Murphy, 2000:14). In this point Street explained “…it is more or less impossible to think of British cinema without reference to its relationship with Hollywood” (Street, 1997:197). Clearly Crofts focused on the general meaning of the national cinema by exposing that “the idea of national cinema has long informed the promotion of non-Hollywood cinemas” (Crofts, 1998:385). For example, two of the most successful British films of the past ten years Shallow Grave(1994) and Trainspotting(1995) were very clearly British. It is this expertise that has seen some of the most popular films of recent times - Star Wars, Supermanand Batman- made entirely in Britain. On the February 15th2005 Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, supported by National Lottery funding through the UK Film Council's Premiere Fund has again proven its ability to clean up at international awards ceremonies by taking Best Director for Mike Leigh and Best Actress for Imelda Staunton. The film also picked up an award for Best Costume Design. Another Lottery backed winner on the night was first time director of A Way of Life, Amma Asante. Asante won the Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement and picked up the UK Film Talent Award.
During the past ten years British cinema might not be the arsenal of a profusion of masterpieces, but it is grown out of a disastrous period of ‘decay’ and ‘decline’. It is the fact that Britain's film industry is riding high. Throughout these period British filmmakers returned eyes to the working class and to British tradition. As Murphy (Murphy, 2000:14) pointed out that it is “ an industry which has found commercial success with films as different as Four Weddings, Trainspotting andThe Futh Monty,which has allowed the production of a range of films stretching from Blue (1993) to Judge Dreddand which has attracted back audiences once feared lost forever, deserves at least two cheers”, with which argument McFarlane (McFarlane, 2001:273) agreed, writing that “they [films] are the exceptions rather than part of a continuing stream of British films once characteristically shown at certain metropolitan cinemas”.
The variety of films and the significance of gender and class issues are the strongest points of British cinema. Films such as Elizabeth (1998) proved their stylistically self-conscious while films like Shakespeare in Love(1999) reflected more conventional and films like The Wings of the Dove(1997) mirrored on a mixture of style, sexuality and social relevance. In this way of ‘changes’ Ashby looks at the point made by Demos and taken up by the New Labour Government revealing that there initiative “was not to promote one British cultural identity over another, but to promote a global perception of Britain as a competitive and innovative enterprise economy, thus enhancing its industrial prospects in a global capitalist free market” (Ashby, 2000:284). Murphy said “both British and American backers recognised the need to nuance their product so as to take account of shifts in audience composition” (Murphy, 1997:138). As Hill writes about the stylistic features of British national cinema argues that “they do so, however, to project a much more fluid, hybrid and plural sense of ‘Britishness’ than was seen in earlier British cinema” (Hill, 2001:207).
According to Murphy “cinema audiences has made British film production increasingly dependent upon international revenues…” (Murphy, 1997:247). Similarly Hill argued that “audience factors are also relevant when considering the subsequent decline of the cinema”, with which argument James agreed, writing that “British producers seem curiously slow to recognise audience trends” (Hill, 2001:209 and James, 2001:307). The Land Girls(1998) is an example in terms of mainstream British cinema - a cinema that hopes to attract audiences from all sectors of the population with presentations at the multiplex. The Land Girlsis an enjoyable 'home front' melodrama and in many ways a typical modern British film. Critics in the UK have consistently championed realist films and denounced fantasy and escapism (audiences, of course have tended to do the opposite - hence the success of Hammer Horror, James Bondand theCarry On films).
Nevertheless, the reputation of British cinema rests largely upon its realist legacy. Hill argued “the idea of British national cinema has often been linked, virtually by definition, to discourses of nationalism and myths of national unity” (Hill, 2001:212). An example can be Wonderland (1999), with its mixture of a realist aesthetic and a melodrama structure. Thirty years on from Alfie, Michael Winterbottom's marvellous film explores some of the same London locations, but this time they are used for a realist melodrama rather than social comedy. Winterbottom's daring approach presents us the most accurate view possible of contemporary London.
At last, the representation of Britain’s various communities in the British film industry make available opportunities for filmmakers from those communities. McFarlane said “British cinema registered the heterogeneity of British society in a sustained, serious way” (McFarlane, 2001:277). Similarly Pines argues that “the notion that cultural identities are based on a less fixed sense of ‘race’, and that they necessarily incorporate other identities such as class, gender and sexuality, became a primary motif in certain strands of black representation” (Pines, 2001:181) . For example in Britain, Babymother(1998) was a 'Black British film'. At festivals in North America, it was simply a 'British film'. This unusual film was hardly seen on its very limited release and deserves another chance. British musicals cannot come along very often and this one offers a tale of a 'dance hall queen'. Another view of London, this time Harlesden NW10, Babymothersings out from within a specific Black British community. The social film, constructed around the conflicts in communities and fuelled by class and gender differences, is the single most important British film genre.
To sum up, British cinema has always had its own way of filmmaking, even though Hollywood’s prominence has outlined the major eras in the development of the British film industry. I have clearly discussed with reference that British films during the past ten years might not have been the arsenals of a profusion of masterpieces, but they have grown out of a disastrous period of ‘decay’ and ‘decline’. I have pointed out that five important themes have affected British cinema. Further I have tried to discuss with examples British films that have come out in the past ten years. In my view British cinema as a national cinema should not be described simply in theory, but as an industry film production increasingly autonomous.
Ashby, Justin & Higson, Andrew (2000) British Cinema, Past and Present (1stEd)
London & New York: Routledge, p.284.
Crofts, Stephen (1998) Concepts of National Cinema in John Hill and Pamela Church
Gibson (Eds.) The Oxford Guide to FilmStudies(1stEd) Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.385.
Glancy, H. Mark (1999) When Hollywood Loved Britain (The Hollywood ‘British’
Film 1939-45)(1stEd) Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.157.
Hill, John (2001) British Cinema as National Cinema: Production, Audience and
Representation in Robert Murphy (Ed) The British Cinema BookLondon: British Film Institute, pp. 207-212
James Nick (2001) They think it’s all over: British Cinema’s US Surrender’ in
Robert Murphy (Ed) The British Cinema Book London: British Film Institute, p.307
McFarlane (2001) British cinema in the 90s in Robert Murphy (Ed) The British
Cinema BookLondon: British Film Institute, pp.273-277
Murphy, Robert (1997) The British Cinema Book (1sted) London: British Film
Institute, pp. 116-247
Murphy, Robert (2000) British Cinema of the 90s (1sted) London: British Film
Murphy, Robert (2001) The British Cinema Book (2nded) London: British Film
Institute, pp. 207-279.
Pines, Jim (2001) British Cinema and Black Representation in Robert Murphy (Ed)
The British Cinema BookLondon: British Film Institute, p.181
Street, Sarah (1997) British National Cinema(1sted) London & New York:
A Way of Life(Asante, Amma 2004, UK)
Alfie(Gilbert, Lewis 1996, UK)
Babymother(Henriques, Julian 1998, UK)
Batman (Nolan, Christopher 1989, UK)
Blue(Jarman, Derek 1993, UK)
Carry On Henry (Rothwell, Talbot 1971, UK)
Carry On Behind (Freeman, Dave 1975, UK)
Carry On Emmanuele(Peters, Lance 1978, UK)
Elizabeth (Kapur, Shekhar 1998, UK)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Curtis, Richard 1994, UK)
James Bond: Die Another Day (Tamahori, Lee 2002, UK)
Judge Dredd(Cannon, Danny 1995, UK)
Shakespeare in Love(Madden, John 1998, UK)
Shallow Grave(MacDonald, Andrew & Boyle Danny 1994, UK)
Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of The Clones (Lucas, George 2002, UK)
Superman(Donner, Richard 1979, UK)
The Futh Monty (Cattaneo, Peter 1997, UK)
The Land Girls(Leland, David 1998, UK)
The Wings of the Dove(Softley, Iain 1997, UK)
Trainspotting(Boyle, Danny 1996, UK)
Vera Drake(Leigh, Mike 2004, UK)
Wonderland(Winterbottom, Michael 1999, UK)