10 great British films directed by women

It was decades before more than a handful of women had the opportunity to direct feature films in the UK. With Joanna Hogg’s third film, Exhibition, confirming her as among our best new filmmakers, we look back at some of the greatest British films by female directors.

Jemma Desai , Selina Robertson , Alex Davidson , Josephine Botting , Jez Stewart , Michael Brooke , Ros Cranston , Lisa Kerrigan , Catherine McGahan , Dylan Cave
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Exhibition (2013)

Exhibition (2013)

Exhibition, the third feature by Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, 2008; Archipelago, 2011), fits flush alongside Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit (1982), recently screened by Hogg as part of her film club A Nos Amours’ rare retrospective of Akerman’s films at London’s ICA. Both films are set in urban environments (Exhibition’s location is west London). Both feature often unexplained psychosexual encounters between couples (The Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and YBA conceptual artist Liam Gillick play Hogg’s married couple D and H). Both use homes, windows and doorways to structure choreographed interactions that physically explore urban anxiety and tender love. Confirming Hogg as one of the foremost directors working in Britain today, Exhibition unfolds like a Pina Bausch dance piece.

Information and materials about the history of female directors in the UK is as ambiguous and evasive as the meanings offered by Exhibition, but some probing proves equally rewarding. Looking back to the 1920s, Dinah Shurey was probably Britain’s only female feature film director of the decade, with her lost 1929 film The Last Post currently in the top 10 of our Most Wanted list. Jump forward to the 1930s and novelist Elinor Glyn is credited in directing two films, Knowing Men and The Price of Things (both 1930). Although a number of female directors flourished making non-fiction films in the 30s and 40s (Mary Field, Marion Grierson, Kay Mander, Ruby Grierson), moving into fiction feature films was even more difficult. Only in the 1950s did the trickle start to become a stream, with films by Wendy Toye, Muriel Box and Lorenza Mazzetti.

Alarmingly, the 1960s, that decade of social upheaval and early women’s liberation, brought few opportunities for British women behind the camera (Joan Littlewood with the 1962 Sparrows Can’t Sing is a rare exception). The radical experimentalist Jane Arden held the reins in the 1970s (with Laura Mulvey co-directing Riddles of the Sphinx with Peter Woollen in 1976), while in the 1980s bravely experimental (but now hard to see) work was produced by filmmakers such as Sarah Turner, Pratibha Parmar, Margaret Tait and Ngozi Onwurah that would lay the groundwork for later features. Onwurah went on to be the first black British female director of a feature film with Welcome II the Terrordome in 1995 (also sadly unavailable). Then, in the 1980s and 90s, the floodgates finally began to open, with funding from the BFI and Film Four increasing the visibility of a new generation of female auteurs, including Sally Potter, Penny Woolcock, Kim Longinotto and Lynne Ramsay.

Focusing on titles that are readily available in the UK, here are some of Britain’s finest films directed by women.

Selina Robertson and Jemma Desai

Blue Scar (1949)

Director Jill Craigie

Jill Craigie made her name with a string of excellent documentaries. She made only one fiction feature, the coalmining drama Blue Scar, set in south-west Wales. Olwen (Gwyneth Vaughan) leaves her sweetheart to pursue a singing career in London, while Tom (Emrys Jones) sticks to his roots and eventually becomes manager of the village colliery. But will he try and win Olwen back?

A socialist, Craigie laces her film with sharp political comment. The coalmining industry had been nationalised two years previously, yet she is careful to show the flaws in the new system, while her expert location shooting in Abergwynfi adds great authenticity, and a scene in which an accident occurs down the pit is particularly chilling. Craigie followed Blue Scar with her very best film, the documentary To Be a Woman (1951), arguing for equal pay.

Alex Davidson

Simon and Laura (1955)

Director Muriel Box

Long before the comedy series W1A, the BBC was mercilessly satirised on the big screen in Muriel Box’s Technicolor extravaganza Simon and Laura. From the corporation’s addiction to acronyms to the slavish pursuit of the inane, the film dissects the world of 1950s television. Adapted from a popular stage play, it also manages to mock the bane of 21st century home-viewing – the reality TV show. Simon and Laura Foster are a theatrical couple whose relationship and careers are on the rocks. When they’re offered a TV series depicting their idyllic home life they can’t refuse the work, but the programme lays bare the fault lines in their marriage. 

The film is a riot of repartee between the Fosters (Peter Finch and Kay Kendall), and Box keeps the action moving at a slick pace. Simon and Laura combines a script worthy of the best 1930s screwball comedies with the pleasures of widescreen colour, ably assisted in this by art director Carmen Dillon and costume designer Julie Harris.

Josephine Botting

Ruddigore (1967)

Director Joy Batchelor

Based on the comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan, Ruddigore was originally commissioned for American television but released theatrically in the UK, making it only the second animated feature to be made in Britain. The first was 1954’s Animal Farm, which was co-directed by the same remarkable lady, Joy Batchelor. To emphasise how exceptional this is, there would not be another British animated feature directed by a woman until Sarah Smith’s Arthur Christmas in 2011. Personally, I consider it an even bigger achievement of Joy’s that Ruddigore has enough to engage and often delight me despite the unpleasant shudder that goes down my spine at the first notes of a Gilbert & Sullivan work.

The BFI National Archive holds the notepads in which Batchelor stripped the libretto down to around half its original length, while sketching out a storyboard shot-by-shot and designing the characters. The women in the film are particularly strong, especially the bridesmaid chorus who move and dance as one in a curtain of pink chiffon with delightful comic touches.

Jez Stewart

The Other Side of the Underneath (1972)

Director Jane Arden

One of the most uncompromisingly radical feminist films ever made in Britain (and, almost unbelievably, the only 1970s British feature film solo-directed by a woman), Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath is a fractured study of highly disturbed young women undergoing therapy in a run-down Victorian-era asylum in the deceptively idyllic Welsh countryside. It remains that rarest of beasts: a film that takes female mental illness and its various manifestations and ramifications wholly seriously.

Very loosely adapted from Arden’s 1971 multimedia stage piece A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches, the film blends conventional dramatic performance (Arden herself plays a psychiatrist), nightmarishly symbolic hallucinations, actual group therapy sessions and a grotesque pagan ‘festival’ in which the use of real ‘outcasts’ (people genuinely ostracised by conventional society, often for mental-health reasons) arguably tips the film over into outright exploitation, only defensible as part of Arden’s desire to shake her audience out of any lingering complacency at every possible opportunity.

Michael Brooke

Orlando (1992)

Director Sally Potter

Sally Potter’s witty and ravishing Orlando bursts onto the screen full of sly jokes, visual delights and startling insights. This intrepid adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘unfilmable’ novel of the same title stars Tilda Swinton in dazzling form as the title character, travelling through 400 years of English history and changing sex in the process. Quentin Crisp also glitters as a stunning Queen Elizabeth I.

Swinton’s glances and words to the camera are an inventive interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s direct addresses to her readers. Orlando typifies Potter’s multifarious approach to filmmaking ever since her teenage experimental work and her ongoing involvement in other branches of the arts – including choreography and music.

Ros Cranston

Bhaji on the Beach (1993)

Director Gurinder Chadha

It’s been 20 years since Gurinder Chadha’s debut feature arrived on screens, raising eyebrows with its brash comedic portrait of British Asian women dealing with life’s disappointments while enjoying a day at the seaside. The script by Chadha and Meera Syal tackles an impressive array of issues – domestic abuse, interracial tensions and unplanned pregnancy all feature and are deftly managed by the ensemble cast. While several of the women are seeking escape on their day out, others are just hoping to meet boys and it all reaches a surprising climax as the group attends a male strip show.

The culture clash between older and younger generations, a hallmark of Chadha’s work, provides much of the comedy as well as some tender moments. Bhaji on the Beach remains lively and poignant with some charming flourishes, including one character’s Bollywood-inspired daydreams and lovingly shot scenes of Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Chadha went on to direct the hugely popular Bend It like Beckham (2002).

Lisa Kerrigan

Under the Skin (1997)

Director Carine Adler

No relation to Jonathan Glazer’s recent film, Brazilian-born writer/director Carine Adler’s Under the Skin is a phenomenally intense drama that charts the psychological breakdown of 19-year-old Iris (played by Samantha Morton in her first starring role), who, prompted by the untimely death of her mother, tries to find meaning for herself through relentless and increasingly masochistic casual sex with strangers.

Shot by Ken Loach’s regular cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, the film’s hand-held angles and obscured shots succinctly mirror Iris’s inner chaos. Significantly, Rita Tushingham plays Iris’s mother, creating a link between Under the Skin and A Taste of Honey, an earlier British feminist film from 1961 that explored a mother-daughter relationship and a young woman’s emancipation. The film won the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1997 and was a landmark moment for British and feminist cinema in its fresh and uncompromising exploration of female sexuality, the body and familial relationships from a female perspective. Sadly, Adler stepped away from filmmaking in 2002.

Selina Robertson

The Arbor (2010)

Director Clio Barnard

I don’t really believe in documentary’s ability to tell the truth and I don’t really believe in any idea of authenticity in terms of a style of filmmaking, no matter what the subject matter is. – Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard’s experimental debut feature, The Arbor, is as much a critique of the documentary form as it is a riveting portrait of a housing estate and its inhabitants, in particular the working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar, best known for writing Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987). 

The film’s title derives from the street in Bradford’s Buttershaw estate, Brafferton Arbor, where Dunbar was brought up and drew inspiration for her gritty realist plays. Eschewing convention, Barnard, who shares her protagonist’s Yorkshire roots, revisited a method of storytelling that she had experimented with in one of her earlier shorts, Random Acts of Intimacy (2002), in which actors lip-synch to audio recordings of real people talking about having sex with strangers. Deployed in The Arbor, the technique gives nuance to the realist elements and results in a subtly unsettling film that hailed the arrival of a fresh voice in British cinema. Her second film is the highly acclaimed social-realist fable The Selfish Giant (2013).

Catherine McGahan

Dreams of a Life (2011)

Director Carol Morley

In January 2006, the body of Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered in a North London bedsit. Her death, from unknown causes, remained undetected for over two years. In Dreams of a Life, filmmaker Carol Morley attempts to piece together the fragments of Vincent’s life in order to understand how this popular woman’s death could remain undiscovered for so long. A number of Vincent’s friends and former colleagues contribute to the film, sharing their memories and anecdotes about her; a moving eulogy to someone who clearly touched many lives.

Morley and her producer Cairo Cannon have a proud filmography of work that finds universal resonance in deeply personal stories. Here their investigations lead to a film that not only gives testament to Vincent’s life but also evokes the unique bond between friends and the particular grief felt when they are gone.

Dylan Cave

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Director Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold’s first two features, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), feature complex and flawed female leads in urban settings, establishing her as a writer/director firmly rooted in the social-realist British tradition. For her third feature, she turned her hand to another thoroughly British genre – the literary adaptation – with startling results. Notably, the casting of the unknown James Howson as her adult Heathcliff threatened to overshadow the film’s reception, with stories emerging that his voice had been dubbed by another actor’s voice in the edit.

Whatever the imperfection of the film’s second half, Wuthering Heights is a visionary piece of filmmaking, and a thoroughly modern adaptation. Redrawing Heathcliff from a vaguely exotic mysterious stranger to a most definitely black and fiercely resented outsider, Arnold strips back the trappings and distance of traditional costume drama. It is her work with director of photography Robbie Ryan that’s the real revelation though: together they create a natural landscape that brutally evokes the passionate cruelty at the gothic heart of the source material.

Jemma Desai

Your suggestions

Ratcatcher (1999)

Ratcatcher (1999)

  1. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)
  2. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
  3. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
  4. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
  5. Little Dorrit (Christine Edzard, 1988)
  6. Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)
  7. Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter, 2012)
  8. Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999)
  9. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2013)
  10. Priest (Antonia Bird, 1994)

There was huge support for Lynne Ramsay when we asked you on Facebook and Twitter what we’d missed from our list. A week after we included Ramsay’s 1999 movie Ratcatcher in our rundown of 10 great films set in Glasgow, the same film became by far the film you most suggested as our most embarrassing omission. Ramsay’s second film, Morvern Callar, was not far behind. Andrea Arnold also got a lot of love: we included Wuthering Heights; you thought Fish Tank and Red Road deserved to be in there too.

On Facebook, Matthew Motyka drew attention to some earlier classics directed by women, including Muriel Box’s The Happy Family (1952), Wendy Toye’s All for Mary (1955) and Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing (1962), while Sophie Mayer gave shout outs to some lesser-known modern gems: “Penny Woolcock’s Tina trilogy, Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent, Tina Gharavi’s I Am Nasrine, Antonia Bird’s Priest, Sarah Turner’s Perestroika, Samantha Morton’s The Unloved (made for TV but so well received at festivals it got a well-deserved cinema release) and Helen by Desperate Optimists (co-directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor).”

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Available to buy

  • The Other Side of the Underneath

    The Other Side of the Underneath

    Jane Arden’s violent and powerful adaptation of her work with The Holocaust women’s theatre troupe.

  • Under the Skin

    Under the Skin

    Carine Adler’s sexy and dark debut, starring Samantha Morton in her first major feature film role.

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