The new wave of UK film-making: the British are coming

The prestigious Sundance Film Festival opens today, and there is just one topic of conversation in town: the unprecedented number of UK-made movies on show. Andrew Gumbel celebrates
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Something strange is in the air at Park City, Utah, where the prestigious Sundance Film Festival opens tonight. People are talking about a golden year for British film – the most extraordinary flowering of our film-making talent for years.

The last time Britain had a significant presence was 2002, when a documentary-style retelling of a key episode in the Northern Ireland conflict made an improbably huge impression and took the Audience Award. The film, Bloody Sunday, featured a cast of near-unknowns, and was written and directed by a man previously best known for working on World in Action news reports.

The man was Paul Greengrass, who has gone on to great things thanks to the Jason Bourne movies, starring Matt Damon, and United 93, his reconstruction of the passenger rebellion on the fourth hijacked aircraft on 11 September 2001.

Greengrass's is a dream story for a British film-maker, or any other kind. He was a man of innovative vision and great narrative flair (his proclivity for hand-held cameras and an intense, heightened realism have made him one of the most interesting stylists of recent years) who managed to use Robert Redford's Sundance festival as a springboard to prominence .

Bloody Sunday went on to win the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, even though Berlin usually turns its back on titles already shown at Sundance, and it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling.

Could history be about to repeat itself? This year, the Brits are knocking themselves out at Sundance, with a record 23 films. They include new feature work from Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright who won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter a couple of years ago, and Sharon Maguire, who directed the first Bridget Jones film.

In the documentary category there is Chris Waitt's intriguing self-examination, A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, in which he attempts to interview his ex-girlfriends about why their relationships all broke down, and Man on Wire, a thriller-style reconstruction of a secret (and illegal) plan by a French performance artist to walk a tightrope between the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre in the early 1970s.

For the UK Film Council, the funding and training body set up by the Government in 2000, the concentration of British talent is a vindication of everything it has worked for. It has helped writers polish their scripts, promoted young talent, sunk money into film production via the National Lottery and developed career opportunities for film-makers.

"No other country has ever had this many films at Sundance apart from the United States," said Tina McFarling, head of the UKFC's industry relations. "At the very least, what we've achieved is a more consistent flow of films getting to audiences and film festivals ... We can now feel that our money is doing something right."

Just getting to Sundance is no guarantee, of course, of international distribution deals or critical acclaim. But the festival has become a key part of the machinery for promoting independent and foreign films in the US and beyond. For first-time film-makers, reaching Sundance is the first key achievement on the road to success – as Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape), Kevin Smith (Clerks) and the makers of last year's comedy hit Little Miss Sunshine could tell you.

Every January, the film industry officially decamps to the snow and fresh air of Park City, Utah. Film-makers do whatever it takes to get their work shown, and distributors hone their instincts to sniff out a hit and try to snap it up before anybody else notices and initiates a bidding war.

This year – the festival starts today – the frenzy will be keener than ever because of the Hollywood writers' strike. The 2008 release calendar should be unaffected by the writers' work stoppage because of the long lead time between a finished script and a finished film. 2009, though, is a different story. If the writers stay out for several more months, as looks distinctly possible, the industry will be starved of film product, or forced to put scripts into production they would rather rewrite or dump.

Since Sundance is the premier showcase, in the English-speaking world anyway, for new talent, anything that even smacks slightly of success should be snapped up at lightning speed.

That could be very good news for Martin McDonagh, whose film In Bruges stars Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes as two hitmen reluctantly lying low in the Belgian city; or for Sharon Maguire, whose Incendiary, based on a novel by Chris Cleave, tells the story of an unfaithful wife whose husband and child are blown up by a suicide bomber at a football match. It stars Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor.

McDonagh has dreamed of breaking into the film-making business for years. For Maguire, Incendiary marks her first return to the director's chair in seven years – and offers her a chance to get much more regular work.

Other British features include the prison break film The Escapist, starring Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes, and Donkey Punch, a survival story set on a yacht off the coast of Spain, directed by Oliver Blackburn.

Even the UKFC concedes that this year's rich crop is as much a matter of luck as anything else – the film industry is notoriously fickle. Ms McFarling argues, however, that the work of the Film Council and other changes, such as the new film industry tax credits introduced last year, have created new possibilities.

"It used to be that producers, directors and writers would assume it took five years to get a film made. That's not the way they think any more," she said.

The magnificent 23: British films showing at the Sundance Festival

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh's tale of suspense is the centrepiece of tonight's gala festival opening. Two unlikely criminals, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, botch an execution and need to lose themselves in a crowdbefore their boss, Ralph Fiennes, phones or finds them.

A Complete History of My Sexual Failures

The award-winning documentary maker Chris Waitt conducts a remorseless investigation into his own sexual history, meeting past conquests who won't flinch from giving him an honest judgement.

Apology Line

Experimental and visually explosive documentary, directed by James Lees, in which members of the public are encouraged to phone up a hotline and leave apologies, sometimes anonymously.

Bend It

Not like Beckham; rather, like Gilbert and George, whose living sculpture-art is featured. This short film, directed by Jules Nurrish, is a homage to its two central characters, neither of whom is sure what it means to have a gender.


Yasmin Fedda's charming drama in which a community of low-paid workers, each having learning disabilities, come together to produce bread for their locality.


A dark, claustrophobic London is the setting for Sean Ellis's grim psychological investigation. A central character, Gina, finds that she is morphing into a version of her former self.


A short film by Tom Harper, somewhere between The History Boys and Dead Poet's Society, which features a bunch of naive schoolboys who resist their teacher's preaching.


Isaac Julien assembles a beautiful and moving collage in this tribute to his late friend Derek Jarman, a legend among independent filmmakers. Tilda Swinton's narration combines sympathy and reverence.

Donkey Punch

Intense drama, brimming with sexual tension, directed by Olly Blackburn. Three beautiful women and three libidinous men are alone on a Mediterranean yacht.All is well, until they head out to sea...

Edward II (1991)

Screened as a special tribute, Derek Jarman's flamboyant adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's royal drama is true to the original text, but carries Jarman's inimitably decorous aesthetics.


Classic prison-break narrative (made in Ireland and the UK), directed by Rupert Wyatt and with Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes starring. An inmate sentenced to life in prison concocts a daring escape plan when a letter arrives informing him his daughter is critically ill.


A short, surreal animation by Leigh Hodgkinson in which butterflies find themselves speed dating because they only have a fortnight to live. Blink and you might miss it: it's just over a minute long.

For the Love of God

The 11-minute film, directed by Joe Tucker and featuring the voices of Steve Coogan and Ian McKellen, follows Graham, a man driven to pursue a deeply unholy sexual fantasy by the stifling conditions in his mother's Christian bookshop.

In Prison My Whole Life

Harrowing Marc Evans documentary about a man on death row in the US that is also a critique of the American judicial system and of racism in the US.


Based on a novel released two days before the London bombings in 2005, this Sharon Maguire film follows a woman whose life is thrown into disarray by a suicide attack on a football stadium. Her husband and son have been blown up, but she finds out while in another man's bedroom. Plagued by guilt, she seek salvation in a new life.


Short film by China Moo-Young in which a teenage girl comes home to her single father, bringing along her new boyfriend.

Man on Wire

James Marsh documentary charting the subterfuge and ambition behind the Frenchman Philippe Petit's astonishingly daring tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre.


Six-minute Leslie Ali film showing a chain reaction sparked off when a hunter is struck by a flying object falling to earth. A noisy commentary on mankind's apparent greed, arrogance and selfishness.

Pearce Sisters

Luis Cook's heart-rending animation follows two sisters as they battle to stave off the tormenting sea. Overtones of celebrated French animation Belleville Rendezvous – but with extra dollops of violence and nudity.


Opening up with mobile phone footage of happy-slapping and soon moving on to a violent assault on an old man, this acclaimed film, directed by Simon Ellis, is a powerful critique on contemporary concerns about moral decay in society.


Stephen Walker's inspirational tale of a group of senior citizens discovering how much fun old age can be – if you sing. Celebrates 25 years of performing everything from punk to soul.

Yours Truly

Brilliantly innovative, this film fuses 16mm "in camera" reconstructions of photo cut-outs and real objects in mini 3-D environments. Charlie and Frank, our heroes, sacrifice their morals in the name of love. It is directed by Osbert Parker.


For nine minutes, Peque Varela's film follows a girl as she tries to discover herself in a small town. Cramped by her surroundings, she struggles to reconcile herself with those around her.

Amol Rajan