Ken Loach leads the British charge for Cannes gold

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The Independent Culture

The radical film director Ken Loach and the Oscar-winning newcomer Andrea Arnold will fly the British flag at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where they have been chosen to compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or.

After a dearth of British films at the 2005 French film fiesta, Loach leads the way this year with The Wind that Shakes the Barley, his politically charged movie about the Irish civil war, starring Cillian Murphy.

But the real coup is for Arnold, a former actress whose low-budget revenge movie, Red Road, starring Kate Dickie and Nathalie Press, is her first full-length feature. Arnold won her Oscar last year for a short film, Wasp, a victory she memorably described as "the dog's bollocks".

Loach, 69, and Arnold, 45, were supported by the National Lottery, through the UK Film Council. The BBC also backed Red Road and has a hand in another prize contender, Fast Food Nation, a UK/US co-production by the American director Richard Linklater, with a British producer, Jeremy Thomas. It is the first time the BBC has had two films in the competition. The festival opens on 17 May, with the premiere of the eagerly awaited Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks, who is expected to attend. The British films' rivals include Volver, by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and Marie Antoinette, by Sofia Coppola.

James Purnell, the Creative Industries minister, said it was great to see strong British films backed by the lottery in the competition. "This shows that lottery money is continuing to make an absolutely essential contribution to our film industry," he said.

Paul Trijbits, of the Film Council, said it confirmed that "British film talent continues to produce films which excite the most prestigious film festival in the world. Ken Loach continues on his quest of raising difficult political issues and has made one of his most powerful films in a most uncompromising way.

"Andrea Arnold, a film-maker who we were delighted to support when she made Wasp, now finds herself alongside Ken Loach and other internationally recognised directors in the Cannes competition."

Although Britain has laid claim to The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Loach's £4.5m film is a co-production between five countries and was filmed in Ireland. Red Road also won support from Scottish Screen, in further evidence of the piecemeal deals underpinning British films.

Loach said it was his choice to seek funding in countries such as France and Italy, where his support was stronger than at home. It was "very nice" to be selected, he said, and added: "It's very good for the film to be asked [to the festival]. But the actual three days there are a fairly daunting event because it's fairly unremitting."

Continuing the strong political vein of his work, which includes Kes and Land and Freedom, the new film is set in the turbulent Ireland of the early 1920s.

"One sets out to tell the story as accurately as you can, but I think it's part of our joint history with Ireland that we don't tell very often because the British government doesn't emerge very well from it," he said. "It was a time when Ireland got independence, albeit partial independence, and the legacy of that is obviously still with us today."

Loachwon the Cannes Special Jury Prize twice, for Hidden Agenda in 1990 and Raining Stones in 1993; and the Ecumenical Jury Prize for Land and Freedom in 1995. But he has never won the "big one", the Palme d'Or. David M Thompson, the head of BBC Films, said: "Cannes is a particularly competitive festival, with literally thousands of films vying for a place, so it's a special honour."

In competition

Flandres (Directed by Bruno Dumont)

Selon Charlie (Nicole Garcia)

Quand j'etais Chaunteur (Xavier Giannoli)

Volver (Pedro Almodovar)

Red Road (Andrea Arnold)

La Raison Du Plus Faible (Lucas Belvaux)

Indegenes (Rachid Bouchareb)

Iklimer (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)

Juventude em Marcha (Pedro Costa)

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro)

Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Lights In The Dusk (Aki Kaurismaki)

Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)

Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater)

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach)

Summer Palace (Lou Ye)

The Caiman (Nanni Moretti)

L'Amico del Famiglia (Paolo Sorrentino)