Rankin: Shooting stars

In a unique set of portraits, the photographer Rankin meets the cream of talent to celebrate the very best of British film. Introduction by John Walsh. Captions by Simon Usborne
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The Independent Online

Flirting with self-parody, Ray Winstone is flashing Vs at the camera; he seems to be abusing the celebrity photographer Rankin. Leading man Mark Strong and character actor Timothy Spall are both gurning at the lens as though impatient at its intrusion in their elevated lives. Both Imelda Staunton and Adrian Lester are ill-advisedly winking. James Nesbitt is baring vampiric teeth, while a sleek Joely Richardson is baring acres of death-pale neck, like a vampire's wet dream. Rankin has clearly directed his subjects to do something interesting with their hands, so Rosamund Pike is using hers to frame her lovely face, Phil Davis is scratching his Old Testament cheeks, while Terry Gilliam and Nathalie Press are grumpily resting their chins. Bill Nighy is fussily adjusting his specs, Helen Mirren is hugging herself (and looking half her age), Ashley Walters is miming an old-fashioned telephone, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is ignoring instructions completely.

There's a lot of transgressive attitude in this series of images, a lot of don't-mess-with-me stroppiness. But that's hardly surprising. For you're looking here at the faces of independent British cinema, the actors who have fronted the cream of home-grown, non-studio-bound, commercial movie-making over the past 10 years. Movies such as Dirty Pretty Things and Sexy Beast, In This World and Vera Drake, Hilary & Jackie and East is East, Billy Elliott and The Constant Gardener movies with hardly anything in common except that they were collaborations between people taking a collective gamble. Often made on a very limited budget, none of these films had a big, rich studio to cushion the wallop of failure. The fact that they were made, and found a distributor, and went on to win awards in Cannes and Venice and Hollywood, speaks volumes for the passion and focus of their producers, and the adventuring spirit of the actors and directors who put them on celluloid. "The British film industry" may be sneered at as an oxymoron, a euphemism for Lottery-funded trash like Sex Lives of the Potato Men; but the work of its independent-minded mavericks, of the calibre of Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, can convince you that the quasi-mythical being really does exist.

It even has its own Oscars; or rather its Bifas. The British Independent Film Awards were set up 10 years ago by a Canadian visionary called Elliott Grove. Of Amish stock, he worked in the American film industry as a scenic artist in scores of films and TV commercials before moving to London in the late 1980s. There he launched Raindance, a festival devoted to independent film-making, and in 1992 set up a training division, offering master-classes on film-scripting and marketing. He presides each year over the awards ceremony and ticks off any "obituarists" about the state of the art in the UK. In 1998, its debut year, the awards ceremony was held at the Caf Royal: 400 people attended and prizes went to Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke (both for Nil by Mouth). This year's event was held last week at London's Roundhouse, where the contenders were Control, Anton Corbijn's moody masterpiece about Ian Curtis and Joy Division, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, from Blake Morrison's moving family memoir, Notes on a Scandal, Hallam Foe and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. In order to qualify for entry, each film had to be produced or "majority co-produced" by a British company, not solely funded by a single studio, and including "sufficient creative elements from the UK" to satisfy the judges. The portfolio of images over the next nine pages was produced to remind the film world just what fierce independence (and that strange chimera, British success) looks like.

Timothy Spall

A fondness for playing "jolly fat guys" earned Spall, 50, a place in our hearts. He shot to fame in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, later starring in a series of Mike Leigh films. Recently he appeared alongside his hotshot-actor son, Rafe, in ITV's A Room with a View.

Joely Richardson

Despite her family tree, Richardson, 42, has only in recent years emulated the acting plaudits of her illustrious forebears. She starred in Lady Chatterley (1993), 101 Dalmatians and, recently, in the US TV series Nip/Tuck, for which she earns 3m a year.

Ashley Walters

At 14, Walters joined the cast of Grange Hill, but later was transformed into a tough-guy rapper with So Solid Crew. After a prison sentence in 2002, he has taken up a string of award-winning roles in films such as Bullet Boy and Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Ejiofor once said it had never even occurred to him to change his name however hard it may be for some cinemagoers to pronounce and he is walking proof that, if, like him, you have talent in abundance, you don't need to conform to succeed as an actor. His breakthrough performance as a kindly Nigerian doctor in Dirty Pretty Things (2002), which won a British Independent Film Award for best actor, propelled him to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic. After roles in Love Actually, Inside Man and Children of Men, Ejiofor, still 30, now appears with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster.

Nathalie Press

North London coquette Press first caused a stir, and won a Bifa, in 2005's My Summer of Love alongside Emily Blunt. The same year she wowed us in the acclaimed BBC Bleak House, in which she played Caddy Turveydrop, and went on to star in Red Road, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year.

Alan Cumming

Once described as "a frolicky pan-sexual sex symbol", this Scots actor isn't your typical movie villain. Yet, following camp turns in the 1980s soap Take the High Road, he made a name in Hollywood playing an evil hacker in Goldeneye and the mutant Nightcrawler in the X-Men sequel, X2. ......... 

James Nesbitt

The Northern Irish actor James "Jimmy" Nesbitt, 42, went from jobbing actor to instant recognition as the charismatic Adam Williams in the hit TV series Cold Feet, seducing a generation of female viewers with his Ballymena drawl and boyish charm. He has since shown himself to be a capable serious actor, starring in the acclaimed docu-drama, Bloody Sunday, and the gritty BBC series Murphy's Law.

Clockwise from left:

Terry Gilliam

A cartoonist by trade, Minnesota-born Gilliam, 67, achieved fame with the Monty Python team, starring alongside Cleese & Co and creating the surreal segues between sketches. Now an always-interesting (if not-always-successful) director, his works include 12 Monkeys, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and The Brothers Grimm.

Helen Mirren

The granddaughter of a Tsarist diplomat, Mirren, 62, once told an interviewer, "I was brought up in a very anti-monarchist household". Despite this, it was her Oscar-winning role as Elizabeth II in The Queen that turned her from TV star to Hollywood royalty. Next year she stars in the much-anticipated re-make of State of Play.

Phil Davis

Davis's CV reads like a roll call of some of Britain's edgiest cinema Quadrophenia, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake and Notes on a Scandal among their number though more mature fans will remember him as Prince John in Robin of Sherwood. His role as the evil moneylender Smallweed, was one of the highlights of the BBC adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House.

Clockwise from far left:

Rosamund Pike

Listed in the OED as a walking definition of "English Rose", 28-year-old Pike was always destined to perform. The only child of opera singers, her porcelain beauty and cut-glass accent saw period drama-makers fight for her participation in productions from Wives and Daughters to Love in a Cold Climate. As Miranda Frost in the 2002 Bond outing, Die Another Day, she proved she could do foxy as well, and her stock is high in Hollywood. Earlier this year she swapped engagement rings with British helmsman Joe Wright (Atonement), who directed her with Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice.

Ian Hart

Liverpool-born Hart, 43, is one of those unsung supporting actors who would turn few heads on a high street, but whose acclaimed performances in a string of films and TV dramas have earned him praise for plumbing the depths of his characters' psyches. In an early role in 1994 he assumed the mantle of John Lennon, and he later played Joe O'Reilly in the acclaimed film Michael Collins alongside Liam Neeson. But his best-known role came in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in which he played the timid teacher Quirinus Quirrell.

Bill Nighy

Commonly described as "thinking woman's crumpet", Nighy, 57, was something of a late riser in the film industry. Aged 29, he put in an uncredited appearance as "Delivery Boy" in the eminently forgettable 1979 Joan Collins movie, The Bitch. To add insult to injury, his single scene didn't even make the final cut. Fast forward almost 30 years and Nighy is one of the screen's most in-demand actors, after acclaimed turns in films such as Love Actually, The Constant Gardener and Notes on a Scandal.

Helen McCrory

One of the hottest young talents working in British theatre today, McCrory was wrongly overshadowed by Sienna Miller in 2005's As You Like It at the Wyndham's Theatre. Also appearing in a supporting role in movies like 1994's Interview with a Vampire, 1998's Dad Savage and 2001's Charlotte Gray, she memorably played Cherie Blair in 2006's The Queen. J K Rowling aficionados will see her as Narcissa Malfoy in the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, released next year.

Clockwise from top left:

Adrian Lester

Once described by a critic as "the kind of classical actor who comes along once in a generation", Birmingham-born Lester, 39, was a star of the stage before his forays into film. In 1996, he won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in Company at the Donmar Warehouse. On screen, he is best known for playing conman Mickey Stone in the popular BBC drama Hustle, and last year stood out as Oliver De Boys in Ken Branagh's poorly received As You Like It.

Imelda Staunton

You'd be forgiven for believing Imelda Staunton to be more advanced than her 51 years she has carved a perhaps unfortunate niche playing blue-rinse roles, most notably the lead in Vera Drake, for which she was Oscar-nominated, and her current incarnation as the gossip-mongering Miss Pole in the BBC's Cranford. Despite roles in acclaimed productions including Peter's Friends (1992), Sense & Sensibility (1995) and Shakespeare in Love (1998) it took Vera Drake to bring her talent to the fore, leading to roles such as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Mark Strong

The son of an Italian and an Austrian, Strong's virile continental looks and brooding stage and screen presence have made him a favourite with critics and female fans. Last year he followed up his chilling turn as gay East End gangster boss Harry Starks in the 2004 BBC mini-series The Long Firm with the even-grimmer series Low Winter Sun, in which he played a murdering police detective. Critics also credited Strong, 44, with the only credible performance in the 2005 Guy Ritchie turkey, Revolver. This year he has appeared in the acclaimed adult fantasy, Stardust, and the Danny Boyle sci-fi epic Sunshine.

Ray Winstone

An amateur boxer for 10 years from his teens (he was three times London Schoolboy Champion), it would come as no surprise that when he swapped ring for stage and screen, Winstone, 50, became the go-to actor for violent Cockney hardman roles. He made his name as the wife-beater in Gary Oldman's 1997 film, Nil by Mouth, and won further acclaim in Sexy Beast and The Departed. His (computer-enhanced) torso can now be seen in the animated epic Beowulf.