Edinburgh Festival '98: Are Brits coming or going?

The image of Cool Britannia may have taken a pasting from The Avengers, but a new batch of British films show that we are capable of doing another Monty, if we don't try too hard.
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The Independent Culture
"THE BRITISH are coming" proclaimed the Oscar-winner Colin Welland back in 1982, and it's a rallying call that has been echoing hollowly down the years ever since. Still, if the Hollywood invasion never quite happened, hope and hype spring eternal. Not a year goes past without the trumpeting of a renaissance in UK cinema. Last year's Edinburgh find, The Full Monty, sent a ripple of excitement through the industry all over again, but did this film really mark a revival or was its international box office success just a happy accident?

Open this week's American trade rag, Variety, and you'll be in no doubt as to the answer. "The myth of Cool Britannia was laid to rest Aug 14" reads the paper's front page, "when Warner Bros let the world see why it was so embarrassed by The Avengers." This year's "least cool" movie, they suggest, is symptomatic not only of Hollywood's misplaced enthusiasm for swinging London, but also of an uncertain UK industry trying "to square last year's hype with this year's reality". So are the British coming or going? Edinburgh Film Festival, with its special section devoted to the first fruits of Britain's lottery-funded production boom, seems as good a place as any to find out.

Here are movies that challenge both what it means to be a "British film", and established notions of national identity. David Yates's impressive feature debut The Tichborne Claimant puts a pleasing, post-colonial spin on the atrophied period picture with its tall tale of the 19th-century butcher who became a pretender to a Victorian baronetcy. Narrated by his African manservant Bogle, the film's enjoyably convoluted plot travels from the Australian outback to the music halls of London, deftly dismantling imperialist myths along the way.

Stuffed with a sterling supporting cast of venerable British actors from Sir John Gielgud to Stephen Fry, The Tichborne Claimant has all the hallmarks of that great British staple, the costume drama. But the sheer skill with which Yates plots and paces his expansive story marks it out from the film arm of our heritage business as an altogether more lively prospect. Hugely entertaining, The Tichborne Claimant has a visual eloquence that deserves to be seen on the big screen - whether it makes it there is another matter. Despite interest from Paramount, the film has yet to find a distributor.

"Audience reactions have been very positive," says Yates, "which is good, because I know that from a marketing perspective it's a nightmare. It doesn't have a love story and it's not all about frocks and production values, so it's hard to flog. Our greatest challenge is to ensure we come up with a campaign which gets people into cinemas to see it."

On the British scene, Yates does recognise a "new buoyancy", but reckons that "we need to develop our screenwriting base". He also voices the common concern that while Brits have always been best at television, they are still working to a small-screen aesthetic. "I think we need to be more playful with the medium, make films with a broader canvas. I also think the people who commission and fund films in this country need to be more creative in the way they perceive the market. To buck the trend, instead of trying to make another Four Weddings, or another Full Monty."

Like The Tichborne Claimant, Sandra Goldbacher's good-looking first feature, The Governess, offers a subversive slant on Britishness, with its story of a young Jewish woman in Victorian Britain who masquerades as a gentile to get a job as a governess. The film has done brisk business in the States, and the crowd-pulling presence of Minnie Driver in the lead should ensure further success. Harriet Walter, who plays Driver's insipid employer in the film, sees it as a prime example of original, authentic storytelling.

"Without being nationalistic, I think the important thing is to tell the stories of your culture. I love seeing a British film that tells a universally recognisable story but remains intrinsically British. So I get depressed when I see imitation Tarantinos. I think we should be true to our own experience and our own forms of expression and not try to please an American market, because we usually please them when we don't try."

Sometimes, she argues, such tales are best told by non-British directors. "I've worked with Ang Lee on Sense and Sensibility and now Rose Troche on Bedrooms and Hallways, and I think as outsiders they can offer a new perspective on these different versions of British society." Largely financed with money from France and Germany, Bedrooms and Hallways is Troche's follow-up feature to her independent hit, Go Fish. Set in contemporary London, it's a hip comedy of manners focusing on the messy, but ultimately liberating mutability of modern sexuality. Troche brings a sure, visual flair to her handling of this feel-good farce, but hasn't she bought into the "swinging London" hype?

"I think you guys overestimate how uptight you are about sex," she says. "You believe your own press - we all believe our own press. I mean, Americans believe that we're more open, but we're in fact really puritanical. Look what's going on with Clinton and Zippergate. When it comes to talking about national identity, we believe our own stereotypes."

Two films that escape scenic cliches to explore a very different physical and psychological "British" landscape are Genevieve Jolliffe's Urban Ghost Story and Michael Winterbottom's I Want You. Set on a grim, high-rise estate in Glasgow, Jolliffe's film filters kitchen sink social realism through horror films such as The Poltergeist and The Exorcist to produce a genuinely haunting work. I Want You, meanwhile, is a ravishing reworking of the British seaside noir. Using sensuous, colour-saturated images to enchant and estrange the viewer, Winterbottom locates his small-town thriller in a world that feels at once familiar and disturbingly foreign.

Whether discovering new settings or reimagining old ones, whether debunking historical myths or contemporary stereotypes, these movies seem evidence of a refreshingly diverse and ambitious definition of Britishness and "British cinema". But the bottom line is that the British renaissance will burn out unless these new films make money.

Jason Connery, who stars in Urban Ghost Story, argues that the greatest problem facing British cinema is its lack of a centralised, commercial base. "A lot of people pooh-pooh the American studio system," he says, "but it creates the environment to make films, and then that money is reinvested. It's all very well to say you want to make edgy, little independent films that 17 people see, but you also need to make blockbusters."

Paradoxically, the British film industry's lack of a profit-hungry studio system continues to be one of its strengths. Compare the inventive, low- budget Tichborne Claimant with the Hollywood-sponsored retro-folly that is The Avengers and you begin to get an idea of what today's grass-roots production boom is all about. With funding and confidence running high, it is an environment in which talented, first-time film-makers have a far greater chance of getting their movies made.

`The Tichborne Claimant' (Wed 26, Cameo 1), `Urban Ghost Story' (Wed 26, GFT; Fri 28 FH2), `I Want You', (Thu 27 Cam2), `Bedrooms and Hallways' (Thu 27, Cam 1), The Governess, (Fri 28, Cam 1)