UK film has been on a sustained winning streak, with British talents contributing to countless critical and commercial successes, and with numerous British films featuring at major film festivals throughout 2013 and 2014. From costume drama and thriller, to action film and quiet domestic drama, these 12 British debut feature films screening in the BFI London Film Festival, demonstrate the great depth and variety of the UK film talent which continues to emerge.
Tom Green – Monsters: A Dark Continent
A prestigious David Lean scholar from the National Film and Television School, director Tom Green caught the industry’s eye with short films Brixton 85 (2008), set during the Brixton riots in the 80s, and Kid (2009), his graduation film set against the background of illegal immigration into the UK. Named one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow in 2009, Green then excelled on low-budget supernatural teen superhero series Misfits (2009-13), which asked what happens if ordinary teenagers wake up with superpowers (a theme Max Landis subsequently riffed on in Chronicle, 2012).
In Monsters: A Dark Continent, the follow-up to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010), Green works as writer, bringing topicality and character depth to sit alongside generic convention, and also shines as director of high-octane action.
Rebecca Johnson – Honeytrap
Rebecca Johnson’s smart and provocative south London-set debut draws inspiration from actual events to craft an authentic coming-of-age story laced with the threat of violence. Speaking about the film, which was in many ways a response to the negative media attention the real-life case attracted, Johnson says: “The responsibility I felt was to tell a story dramatically without using melodrama or the two-dimensional, and dehumanising broad-strokes of a news piece”.
Johnson has made several acclaimed shorts, including the award-winning Top Girl (2008), which played at more than 30 festivals internationally. Honeytrap more than lives up to her early promise, and signals her as a huge talent to keep an eye on.
James Kent – Testament of Youth
In James Kent (TV’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 2010), cinema finds another stellar directorial talent moving from the small screen, here to direct an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoirs Testament of Youth. Scripted by Juliette Towhidi for BBC Films and Heyday (Harry Potter, Gravity) with investment from the BFI, the film charts the devastation of an entire generation through the experiences of one woman coming of age during the First World War.
Kent employs an excellent young cast: Alicia Vikander (also in LFF Competition film, Son of a Gun); Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) and Taron Egerton (tipped for stardom with Matthew Vaughan’s Kingsman: The Secret Service in the pipeline). Testament of Youth is a heartbreaking reminder of just how catastrophic the great war was for young people, and Kent impresses at the helm, commanding exquisite craftsmanship and performance.
Andrew Hulme – Snow in Paradise
Having worked as editor on a vast number of films, including Anton Corbijn’s films Control (2007) and The American (2010), Andrew Hulme’s directorial debut, which premiered in Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a boldly told and visually imaginative account of an east London gangster who turns his back on his criminal life to convert to Islam.
Taking its cues from the real-life experiences of co-writer and co-star Martin Askew, Snow in Paradise cleverly subverts genre expectations to memorable effect. “I grew up with stories of conversions,” Hulme says of his film. “We’ve all heard them before, but they’re usually Christian. To me, an Islamic conversion is more realistic in this day and age, because Islam is something that’s ‘other’ – and that’s always appealing about it.”
Debbie Tucker Green – Second Coming
Olivier-winning theatre writer and director, Debbie Tucker Green follows her BAFTA-winning Channel Four drama Random (2011) with Second Coming, produced by Hillbilly with Film4, and support from the BFI. Tucker Green’s strong writing attracts a top cast and here she gets exceptional performances from Idris Elba, Nadine Marshall and her young actor, Kai Francis Lewis.
Shot by up-and-coming director of photography Urszula Pontikos (Lilting, Weekend), Second Coming is not only refreshing for its too-infrequently-seen portrait of a black middle-class family, as it is for its original premise. What happens to a seemingly happy marriage and family when a wife becomes pregnant and it’s not her husband’s child … particularly when the wife denies she has slept with anyone else?
Daniel Wolfe – Catch Me Daddy
One of several titles flying the Brit flag at the this year’s Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, Catch Me Daddy is an arresting collaboration between brothers Daniel and Matthew Wolfe that tells the story of a young Pakistani woman named Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) on the run from her traditional Pakistani family. Discussing the origins of the project, director Daniel Wolfe explains: “Both of us wanted to do something with a strong female protagonist. The heroine’s journey. We’d been writing stuff in quite masculine worlds, and this is a masculine world but through it you have this spine of Laila.”
Set in the cinematically stunning Yorkshire Moors, brought to vivid life by famed cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the film is a thrilling and often challenging piece of work that deliberately poses more questions than it answers.
Morgan Matthews – X+Y
An audience hit earlier this month at Toronto International Film Festival, with Hollywood Reporter calling it “deeply affecting … a spot-on portrait of autism”, this is one of the feel-good films of the Festival. Director Morgan Matthews and screenwriter James Graham developed the screenplay loosely drawing from Morgan’s Beautiful Young Minds (2007), a documentary about gifted young mathematicians.
It’s a testament to how well regarded the duo are (Mathews as a BAFTA-winning documentary filmmaker and Graham as a playwright) that they were able to gather the finest acting and behind the scenes talent – from Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Asa Butterfield and Eddie Marsan to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables). The result is entirely winning.
Guy Myhill – The Goob
Deeply evocative in its lyrical depiction of the East Anglian countryside, Guy Myhill’s accomplished drama about a young man named Goob making sense of the world around him effortlessly achieves its own distinctive visual language. Talking about the look of the film, Myhill says: “The intention was to capture a summer harvest in an impressionistic, loose way, mirroring Goob’s physicality. Long-legged, truncated movements that lean towards an unsophisticated innocence.”
Yann Demange – ’71
It’s 1971, the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Gary Hook, a young British army recruit, is left behind on the Falls Road when his squadron desert him during a heated riot. With both republican assassins and sinister undercover British army officers on his trail, Gary has to make his way back to his barracks during a single, treacherous, explosive night in this conflict-stricken city.
This is the startling premise of ’71, Yann Demange’s debut feature, and he directs with commanding assurance. With a background in commercials and TV dramas such as the acclaimed Top Boy, Demange combines a thrilling sense of suspense with moments of resonant character drama. Underpinning the film’s visceral impact is a nuanced depiction of the political complexities of the time: “From the outset,” Demange told Screen International ahead of the film’s competition slot at the Berlin Film Festival, “we made sure we engaged with the shades of grey in this conflict.”
Simon Baker – Night Bus
Simon Baker makes a hugely successful transition from music videos to feature filmmaking with this entertaining and richly colourful comedy. Set on that quintessentially London institution, a busy night bus through an after-hours capital, the film is a engaging low-budget ensemble drama that flits between passengers on two levels of a double-decker with breezy assurance.
Boasting lively performances, the film offers glimpses, some funny, some bizarre, some poignant, into the lives of the bus’s many passengers. “Nowhere else in London do … characters get more fatefully thrown together than on a night bus,” Baker says of the idea behind his winning debut.
Tom Browne – Radiator
An actor with a string of credits that range from the blockbuster The Mummy Returns (2001) to indie drama The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (2000), Tom Browne is no stranger to the London Film Festival, having premiered his short Spunkbubble here in 2010. For his first feature, Radiator, Browne drew on personal experience, writing a script with Danny Cerqueira based on his relationship to his ageing parents.
Beautifully acted, the result is an intimate chamber piece that sees a middle-aged man return to his family home (Browne’s own parents’ house in Cumbria) where his mother is struggling to care for her demanding husband. Imbued with moments of humour, Radiator is a sensitive and emotionally piercing family drama with universal resonance. “It’s intimate, detailed and specific,” says Browne of his debut. “The focus is a difficult and painful marriage which is nonetheless shot through with an odd love.”
Corinna McFarlane – The Silent Storm
Having co-directed Three Miles North of Molkom, a 2009 documentary about an unconventional festival in Sweden, Corinna McFarlane makes an assured switch to fiction, with this intense drama about the tense dynamic between a minister, his wife and a young stranger on a remote Scottish island.
For this visually sweeping tale, McFarlane has assembled a high-profile cast, with Andrea Riseborough and Damian Lewis as the unhappily married couple. Newcomer Ross Anderson (soon to be seen in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth) provides striking support.