Best of British

So it's three cheers for `The English Patient', nine times Oscar- winner for Britain. And another three cheers for those two other Great British successes: `Fargo' and `Kolja'. Come again?

In the dimly lit coffee-house behind Prague's National Theatre, the quiet sippings of espresso and civilised rustle of morning papers are scarcely disturbed by the entrance of the tall young man. The traditionally trendy trappings of leather jacket and shades do not mark him out from any of the other young intellectuals-with-attitude who have come in quest of caffeine and newsprint to kick-start their day. If this were one of his films, however, and the action cut to a shot of the inner workings of his imagination, 32-year-old Jan Sverak would be the cause of rather more animated glances and much spilling of coffee - for, within a fortnight of our meeting, his latest film, Kolja, will have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Since its release last year, audiences in 43 countries have been captivated by this Czech story set in pre-Velvet Revolution Prague and charting the relationship between a five-year-old Russian boy and a wayward ladies' man of a cellist who becomes his unwilling adoptive father. Whether it's been the humour of those scenes in which Kolja disrupts the cellist's love-life, Sverak's painterly manipulation of Prague's golden light, or simply the five-year-old charisma of Andrei Chalimon, the film has won nothing but enthusiastic responses. Two mothers in America named their babies Kolja within 24 hours of its US release, copies of the video hit the black market in Russia even before it had got to America, and in the Czech Republic Kolja is hauling in almost twice as many people as Independence Day.

Ironically, while British multi-Oscar-winner The English Patient had to draw on American money, so the film that has now so raised the profile of Czech cinema owes its existence to British producer Eric Abraham. "I was lucky that I had an English producer who believed in the strength of the film's story," says Sverak. "It was fashionable three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall for Western Europeans to be interested in post-Communist countries, but now that's over. To find someone from Western Europe willing to invest in a film in Czech, based on Czech and Russian jokes, was very hard."

So why was there no Czech money? "After the Velvet Revolution," Sverak explains, "the state stopped subsidising films. For the older generation of film-makers this was very difficult: some felt it was the end of the industry. It's not." The fall of Communism, which seemed at first to free Czech film-makers from the fear of censorship, also brought about a financial crisis: the Communists had always handed out large sums of money to anyone who wrote scripts that did not seem to undermine the state. With the heavy influx of American movies, and the confusion of privatisation, the number of Czech films released each year has dropped from 50 to 20. Today, no Czech film can break even on Czech box-office alone, and few can boast Kolja's ability to transcend national boundaries.

So what is Sverak's winning formula? Part of it lies in his visual technique. The man who originally wanted to be a painter displays his strong visual sense through the use of unexpected camera shots that strikingly augment the mood of the moment. No one who has seen his road movie Jizda (The Ride) will forget the moment when one of the characters stands up in an open-topped car and, with a gesture of freedom to the heavens, cues a God's-eye shot of the small, tattered vehicle against an endless landscape. Or take the graveyard scene in Kolja, in which, with documentary-like intensity, Sverak focuses our attention on the fine actions of a paintbrush filling in the gold lettering on a tombstone.

Whether it is in simple shots like this, or in more virtuoso effects, like Kolja's feverish hallucinations about a spinning-top, the delight of Sverak's style lies in the details. "I love details," he says, "and I believe in the importance of showing a scene from many perspectives. My father's creativity is verbal, and mine is visual, which is why, since we started to collaborate [on Elementary School, a 1990 Oscar nomination], we work so well together." In Kolja's case, Jan's father Zdenek, a well- known Czech comedy actor, not only wrote the script but also starred in it as the philandering cellist. It was also he who set his son on the path to this week's Oscar by buying him his first 8mm camera when he was 12 years old. Now Czech film buffs recite Jan's achievements like a litany: the student award he won for his graduation film; the cult status he scored with The Ride; his first Oscar nomination at the age of 26.

And in case you still suffer from an allergy to subtitles, don't despair: Sverak's next film will be in English. "I can't say any more about it," he laughs. "The script isn't written yet." And who knows where the money's coming from `Kolja' opens in the UK on 9 May

`It's a great day for the Isle of Wight," Anthony Minghella declared as he accepted his Best Director Oscar for The English Patient on Monday night. In so doing, the Isle of Wight-born director was perhaps mocking the nonsensical nationalism that has surrounded this year's Britpack Oscar invasion.

Were the Oscars a triumph for Britain or not? Brits Sir Andrew Lloyd- Webber and Tim Rice won the Best Song Oscar for the American film, Evita; British composer Rachel Portman won the Original Music Oscar for Evita, another American film. The English Patient won nine Oscars, including the double whammy of Best Film and Best Director, but in recent days everyone and his personal trainer has been keen to point out that, financed with American money, it isn't really a British film at all. Its (American) producer, Saul Zaentz, calls it "an international film". Two of its Oscars - for sound and editing - were won by Walter Murch, another American. Best Supporting Actress winner, Juliette Binoche, is indubitably French. Hell, even the English patient is a Hungarian.

But does it matter? Chauvinistic thinking about movies is meaningless. Is Mike Leigh's quintessentially English, Oscar-overlooked Secrets and Lies in reality a French film because French money paid for it? Is the Australian film Shine, for which Australian actor Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor, actually British because British investors stumped up the dosh? Ditto double-Oscar-winner Fargo, a very American film produced by the British independent Working Title and financed by British money.

Tim Bevan, with Eric Fellner the co-chief executive of Working Title, couldn't care less about a film's financial provenance. "Which country the funding comes from is not an issue. What we look for are creative relationships, whether it's with Richard Curtis [Four Weddings and a Funeral writer] or the Coen Brothers. Fargo is our second film with them [The Hudsucker Proxy was the first] and they are doing their next film, The Big Lebowski, with us too."

Working Title has a similar relationship with Tim Robbins, having produced his directorial debut, Bob Roberts, and last year's Oscar winner, Dead Man Walking. This year marks the third year in a row that Working Title movies have won Oscars. In 1995, they triumphed with Four Weddings and a Funeral. That success established Working Title as the flagship British independent, for its diverse output of idiosyncratically British films from 1984's My Beautiful Laundrette to Four Weddings. Its more recent successes with "American" films - it made Lawrence Kasdan's French Kiss, starring Meg Ryan - may point the way forward for other British independents. Then again, it may not. French Kiss cost $36m. Working Title's forthcoming Sean Bean starrer, The Borrowers, cost pounds 30m. Not much by Hollywood blockbuster standards but a lot for a British independent company. Haven't we been here before with Goldcrest in the Eighties? Successful thanks to a string of low-budget hits, the British company then crashed under the combined financial burden of three expensive box-office flops: Absolute Beginners, The Mission and Revolution.

Bevan doesn't see it happening to Working Title. "We concentrate on making films in the $10m to $40m bracket. At the higher end, star-driven movies aren't much of a risk and are good revenue machines. We like to be in balance - the odd larger budget film is needed so we can make a Dead Man Walking." Besides, unlike Goldcrest, Working Title is now part of a much larger conglomerate. It is one of the film "labels" of Polygram Filmed Entertainment (PFE), a British-based company also responsible for Jumanji, Twelve Monkeys, The Usual Suspects, and Pamela Anderson's Barb Wire (three out of four ain't bad). PFE has deep pockets. More important, it has a worldwide distribution network and hopes therefore to have the clout of a major studio.

Working Title has total creative freedom under PFE's benign ownership. Because of this, Bevan is quick to scotch the rumour thatthe major studios are supposed to be annoyed because of the way the independents swept the board at the Oscars: out of 163 studio movies only one, Jerry Maguire, got any significant nominations and a lone Oscar, for Cuba Gooding Jnr. "It's bullshit that the studios don't like the independents," Bevan says. "Most of the big studios own the independents. Disney owns Miramax [which made The English Patient], Warners has Fine Line and Fox has set up Searchlight. But we do different things: the independents are always going to do lower budget, character-driven films; studios do megabudget movies. And so it's no surprise that when it comes to critical accolades the independents are going to walk off with them."

Colin Welland famously and vaingloriously announced at the 1984 Oscars, "The British are coming!" In 1997, it seems they finally arrived. However closely you parse the films to see whether they really are "British", nobody can deny that in terms of nominations British actors, directors, writers and technicians dominated this year's Oscars. The big question now is whether the British film industry can capitalise on this talent.

All the signs are that it may be able to do so. The diversity of films coming out of Britain - from Trainspotting to the latest heritage movie - is made possible by the number being made: 120 last year. Admittedly, over half went straight to video and only three made the list of the top 50 box-office films, but in these multimedia days a low-budget film's success needn't depend on its big-screen showing.

More significant, there is more money around for British films. Investment over the past two years in films in Britain has gone from pounds 394m to pounds 655m. Channel 4 is committed to spending pounds l00m on British film-making over the next four years. And in May, the Arts Council Lottery Board will hand out upto pounds 39m, spread over six years, to four separate consortia - they may include Double Negative, which puts Working Title together with Revolution Films and The Jonescompany - to make movies.

Under pounds 10m a year each doesn't sound like much set against the budgets for this year's special effects-led Hollywood movies: Volcano is costing around $60m, James Cameron's Titanic is up to $115m. But, as with any lottery bid, the consortia will come up with matching funds that will at least double the money in the pot. Given the cost of past successful British films (Crying Game cost pounds 2.2m and made pounds 47m; Four Weddings cost pounds 2m and made pounds 72m), there could be a bonanza up ahead.

"We have more talent at every level than when I first started working," Bevan says. "If the lottery franchises are run right, I really think there will be a British film industry"

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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