by Harlan Kennedy



Faites vos jeux and vivent les differences!

For those who feared the Euro-Tunnel linking England and France would end decades of cross-channel cultural aggro between Sceptred Isle and Continent, the British movies at Cannes '97 came as timely correction.

The French provided the momentous event, a Golden Jubilee filmfest, while the Brits provided the mo­mentous movies. It was party-crashing without pity. Nil By Mouth, Mrs Brown, My Son the Fanatic, and others trooped into town, as if in late and glorious rebuttal of the most famous insult ever aimed at U.K. film­dom (by, who else, the French). "British cinema," Francois Truffaut famously quipped, "is a contra­diction in terms." Not any more, Francois. Britain is benefiting from a hole in the zeit­geist layer. A nation's artists have immemorially thrived in that fissure of opportunity between a political golden age and its silver successor. Just as Eliza­bethan England's chefs d'oeuvre (Hamlet, King Lear, Othello) came in the twilight of Queen Bess's reign or the dawn of successor James I, so modern Britain finds artistic enfranchisement in the gap between Good Queen Maggie and the demotic consolidations of Major/Blair. Tongues are loosened and imagination freed as a heyday of national pride shakes down into a postlude of self-assessment and funky, reindividualized visions.

The media climate has helped Britain, too. In today's age of delivery-system confusion, when no one knows what tomorrow's viewing priority will be (theaters, TVs, computer screens; airwave, cable, satellite), a country with a richer television culture than any other has seized advantage. It is making movies in the same spirit that gripped the New German Cinema back in the Seventies. The scope and format of the screen matter less than the scope and size of the idea.

The new U.K. movies tilt at the most urgent theme in modern Western society: how to find meeting points in an over-crowded world between classes, creeds, generations, sexes, and even (in Love and Death on Long Island with John Hurt as a gay Humbert Humbert) sexual persua­sions. Britain should know about media­tion and entente. It doesn't just have its own domestic swirl of ethnic tensions and flashpoints (as well as the world's most famous victim of intolerance in Salman Rushdie). It has also spent most of its movie-cultural life as a buffer zone between America and Europe.

Now it is coming off the buffers, and the first victims may be decorum and good taste. Concords are reached only by first defining the conflicts. So in Nil By Mouth, Gary Oldman's autobiographical account of a brutal South London childhood, the camerawork is as fractiously, irresistibly "in your face" as in any debut movie one can remember. As if knowing that the large screen tradition­ally calls for detailing, definition, and a judicious use of distance, Oldman says ya-boo to all that. He shoves closeups right at us, blurry with movement or tele­photo myopia, or set in dark and smoky dives or smoggy, drizzling streets, where they are further fogged by low resolution.

Oldman's story-telling technique is as primitive and unpretty as his visuals. Who are these people? From scene one their lives and mannerisms burst like stray firecrackers all around us: the fat and fortyish neighbor­hood psycho with a volcano temper (Ray Winstone); the weak, running-on-empty junkie who performs his errands (Charlie Creed-Miles); the fatso's wife (Kathy Burke), who tries to find time between being beaten up to bear the child she is carrying (she fails and miscarries). We have to reach through the opaque visuals and narrative non-sequiturs to find the dots even before we can join them up.

It's like life, and triumphally. (So is the photography: how wonderful to have dialogue-by-night car scenes that are not lit by mysterious kilowattage below the dashboard.) And the film is less unstruc­tured than it seems. Oldman has a rhyth­mic intuition about when to draw breath between dementias. Some sequences are effective for their very slowness and matter-of-factness. Burke drives Creed-Miles to a dope-buying tryst and then sits at the wheel patiently, forlornly, while he shoots up in the backseat. The camera lingers, too, with stubborn patience on the scene where a tattooed low-lifer picks fleas from a puppy while mimicking line-by-line, as he watches, Dennis Hopper's spaced-out stichomythia in Apocalypse Now. (We've all been through that phase.)

Nil By Mouth has been called, by side-on compliment, a Ken Loach movie without politics. Its strength is that it has no seigneurial thematic gloss; it is as stark and loopy as a Beckett play. The only two bad scenes are those that betray, briefly, the tragicomic nihilism. In one, Ray Winstone is given a speech about his loveless childhood that explains the symbolism of a movie title culled from hospital bed-signs: "I don't remember one kiss, not one cuddle." In the other, Creed-Miles remembers a loved and lost dog. Trauma by numbers. In both cases it's as if someone had wandered on stage in the middle of Endgame to explain that the charac­ters once had psychologically damaging encounters with dustbins.

If Nil By Mouth was the Competition startler, Mrs Brown, already snapped up by Miramax for U.S. release, was the sleeper of the sideshows. Again the style is more "without" than "with." What director John Madden jettisons, in this truth-based tale of the bizarre mid-19th century friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Scottish gillie (horsekeeper) turned master-of-the-household John Brown (Billy Connolly), is any hint of "Master­piece Theatre." No airs and flounces, no attitudinized locution. Just Dame Judi and Mr Billy squaring off in Scot­land and the Isle of Wight, as if they were the Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey de leurs jours.

They do not of course bed down with each other (we should be so unamused). They simply, radiantly thaw each other out. He helps her reexperience human feeling after the death of her husband Albert, the Prince Consort. She helps him find balm and friendship in his bachelor existence. Meanwhile, ever louder rhubarbings are heard from the British people, via messengers, newspapers, or the just-dropping-by Prime Minis­ter, Ben Disraeli (Anthony Sher), complaining of a Queen lost first to her mourning, then to her manservant.

Not even the amplified political reverb fully explains the movie's magic. As if by parthenogenesis – as if the creators them­selves didn't quite know the mini-myth they were creating – Madden and scriptwriter Jeremy Brock have made a movie about two madnesses in elemen­tal collision. Excess breed­ing and greathearted barbarism. It is not just class versus class – Queen facing off with commoner – but in a largesse of subtly hinted dialectical pairings, the interior versus the landscape, the refined portrait versus the raw psyche, the superego versus the id.

Judi Dench's face is tremulous with self-control, as bulbously round and polished, for all the scratchmark-wrinkles of age, as a bossed mirror. She looks as if she could implode with her own genteel self-containment. Against the English classi­cal actress is pitted the ill-kempt Scottish comedian. Stand-up vaudevillian Connolly measures perfectly that role's wonky machismo. He is as ragged as the Celtic heatherland, as craggy as its mountains, as ill-behaved as its weather. In Victorian England a little uncouthness could go a long way. When John Brown says, "Lift yer foot, woman," to his horse-mounting Queen, it's as star­tling as if he had sprayed her with four-letter words.

Did Madden and Brock intend echoes of another gaunt, eccentric power-behind-the-throne in their John Brown? Since Connolly is taller, hairier, and crazier-looking here than his real-life model, are we looking at MacRasputin? In later scenes he is jealously victimized by fellow courtiers, with a link suggested between his punishing, rain-soaked vigil one night chasing supposed Irish assas­sins – a cruel hoax alarm – and the poor health that led to his death.

Mrs Brown, instead of giving pat answers, spends two hours asking enthralling questions. About the nature of power; about the bounds of civility and servility; about the interaction between man (or woman) and history; and about that compelling ensorcelment whereby born opposites suddenly find they have more in common than peers.

A trust in the human face as limit­less terrain for the exploring camera links Mrs Brown and Nil By Mouth to the third in the Brit trilogy of top films at Cannes. My Son the Fanatic is Mrs Brown in reverse. Two people who should be close, a father and son, find themselves sundered, violently, by reli­gion. While the Indian immigrant taxi driver (Om Puri) has lived in England long enough to learn tolerance, liberal­ism, and the rules and rewards of an ask-no-questions hedonism – on the extramarital QT he is romancing a pros­titute – his son (Akbar Kurtha) has lived in England long enough to be enraged by its laissez-faire skepticisms. Bitten by Islamic fundamental­ism, he imports a Maharishi and disci­ples into the family home. The live-in believers are soon banishing Mum to the kitchen, castigating Dad, and preparing a placard war on the local streetwalkers.

Scenarist Hanif Kureishi came close to punching a Cannes reporter who pressed him about "fatwa" risks and the Salman Rushdie precedent: the screen­writer didn't feel he needed that kind of publicity. But My Son the Fanatic, directed by Udayan Prasad, is not so much anti-Muslim as anti-monomania. Like My Beautiful Laundrette it conjures the seductive vision of a spin-wash social Utopia where all classes, colors, and creeds can unite in one sudsy embrace (as do the father and prostitute), at least until Dystopia stomps in, with its doctrines and dogmas, to switch off the cycle.

The racial and cultural coalition that is modern Britain doesn't stop, the film suggests, at black and white or Christian and Muslim. Kureishi and Prasad reach out for a Jonsonian rich­ness, with a Swedish entrepreneur thrown in (Stellan Skårsgård of Break­ing the Waves) and every shade of racketeer, rookie, and religious fruitcake moving through the red-blue-yellow-light districts of a town atomizing in its identity by the minute.

My Son the Fanatic is funny, caution­ary, touching, and wonderfully limber in its style. It can be cartoony one moment, with Prasad allowing the grotesquer characters their goldfish-bowl closeups. At others it is darkling, elusive, mourn­ful. Once again on a British screen, style is what the content makes it.


NOT ALL THE folk involved in these movies joined in the mad climactic day of British Cinema Celebration at Cannes: a stunt for which actor-celebs were specially flown in by Britain to prance about the Croisette having their pictures taken. Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Kate Winslet were among the twenty-odd bods reported to have posed for the shutterbugs, while – as if to lend urgency to the movies' call for social and racial entente – black Oscar nomi­nee Marianne Jean-Baptiste of Secrets & Lies was left behind in Britain, penning a late letter of grievance.

Why was she left out (she wrote)? Could it be a black thing (she implied)? Perish the thought. After all (we told ourselves), several other Brits were left out: dear John Hurt, who bestrode the funny anguish of Love and Death on Long Island; Clive Owen, seen in the plum lead role of the not-so-plum movie of Martin Sherman's stage play Bent; Brenda Blethyn, who won Best Actress last year for Secrets & Lies; and Kathy Burke, who won this year for the Oldman flick.

Even with all these no-shows, however, political tact and cultural breadth of vision, let alone decency, would have insisted on Ms. Jean-Baptiste joining the madness on the Med. For the record, she's the only British black actor ever to have won an Oscar nomination. For another record, this 50th Cannes Film Festival proved that that term British Cinema no longer means C. Aubrey Smith and "Anyone for cricket?" or even E. Morgan Forster and "Anyone for Edwardian moral nuance?" It means a country and culture relishing a new, rich, difficult diversity of race, color, and belief, of challenged moral perspective and chal­lenging movie prospectus.

Or at least it should.




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.