Film: Going the full monty... again

The search is on - always - for the next 'Four Weddings and a Funeral', a new 'The Full Monty'. Nowhere is it more intensive than at The Sundance Festival where, reports Tim Cornwell from Park City, Utah, a romantic comedy directed by a former British soap star could

be the small film that makes it big in '98.

The Brit Pack are out in force at the Yarrow Hotel, near the ski slopes that will host the Winter Olympics in 2002. For the fourth time in six years, a British film has lead off the Sundance Film Festival. Peter Howitt, known in the UK as a TV and film actor, is telling how he pounded the pavements to raise money for Sliding Doors, a romantic comedy he wrote and directed.

Sundance is an event that scrupulously honours directors rather than stars. So actress Gwyneth Paltrow, of Emma fame, coyly demurred to Howitt at the press conference, as he appealed for the return of a stolen Beatles collection and threw out foreign-sounding words like "tosser". Howitt's film took the same opening night slot at Sundance as Four Weddings and a Funeral did four years ago. It may struggle to make such a splash, but it went down very well in Utah.

British film-makers are a potent presence at Sundance. It may be because the festival was launched to showcase lower-budget independent films made outside the studio system; Britain doesn't have a studio system, so its films fit the independent mould. Or it may reflect that British films have been on a roll since Sundance established itself as the premier event on the American festival calendar.

Sundance was launched by Robert Redford in 1985 in Park City, Utah, a ski resort 45-minutes drive outside Salt Lake City. The actor, who named the festival after his character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is determined to keep Sundance intimate and artsy. But it is a struggle against an event that threatens to lose its charm to a Cannes-style spiral of stars and hype.

Sundance's success is routinely charted back to Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, a film made for almost no money that was spotted and bought by distributors and went on to gross tens of millions. The 10-day festival has burgeoned into a Hollywood fixture, chronicled in USA Today and the morning news shows. Attendance grew by seven per cent last year alone, with two new theatres.

The festival this year featured 10 British films and six shorts. Of 16 films that premiered there, four were British or British-European. Tom Clarke, the first Minister for Film, chose Sundance this year to make his American debut, signalling the event's importance. The British Film Office set up shop in Park City for the first time in 1997, ferrying out directors and actors.

Amid American tales of Russian roulette played by New York gangsters in Montana, or a young Indian's quest to retrieve his estranged father's body in Smoke Signals, are sprinkled films like Twentyfour Seven, a stark story from Thatcher's Britain starring Bob Hoskins.

The Land Girls, a story of women farm workers in World War II, and directed by David Leland (Personal Services, Wish You Were Here) had its world premiere, and was well received. The Sea Change, a joint British-Spanish production, came looking for distribution deals.

For the hundreds of journalists who now converge on Park City, along with agents and Hollywood buyers, the game is to spot the film with "Buzz". One candidate for this elusive quality: The Misadventures of Margaret, directed by former BBC documentary maker Brian Skeet, and starring Parker Posey, the actress known as the "Queen of the Indies", who has made a virtual career out of festival films.

Park City's altitude is said to do strange things for people's judgement: several films bought in bidding wars last year later lost hefty sums at the box office. There are also hits and misses in the selection panel's choice of British talent. Brassed Off was chosen to open the festival last year but the favourite film with audiences was The Full Monty.

Scottish actress Andrea Hart won a special jury award for the title role in Miss Monday. Shot in London, though by an American director, the film is full of British grubbiness: bulimia and blotchy skin, and a nasal peeping tom in James Hicks, as a frustrated screenwriter whose search for a real female character leads him to stalking, burglary and hiding in closets.

Miss Money, like other festival films, got one screening in Salt Lake City itself. As Hart makes panting love to her dressing-table mirror, watched by Hicks one couldn't help wondering what the Mormon matrons in the audience would make of it all. Or, for that matter, Middle America.

Sliding Doors is a cross-cultural tale in itself. "What is Bradford?" was the pointed question levelled by an American film executive at an early script. "I'm on first names with several people from Bradford," the character played by Glaswegian John Hannah jokingly warns his co-star, Gwyneth Paltrow, as he picks her up in a bar. The joke was lost in translation, and it was expunged from the final version of the film, along with references to 15 to 1 (replaced by Jeopardy) and Countdown (now Baywatch).

Howitt, struggling to find "a million quid" to make the film, originally took his script to Hannah, who had made his name with the funeral oration for a dead lover in Four Weddings. After one financing deal fell through, Hannah mentioned the script to veteran American director Sydney Pollack. It took one call from Pollack to raise a $10 million budget, paradoxically from Britain's Intermedia.

Sliding Doors cleverly interweaves two parallel plots that begin as Paltrow's character runs for a tube train. It is an impressive first outing as director for Howitt, with Pollack finishing the final cut. For all the minor concessions to the Americans, it keeps its British accent. The fondest phrase of Hannah's character is the old Monty Python line: "Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition".

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