Where to begin with Michael Winterbottom

A beginner’s path through the genre-hopping cinema of Britain's mercurial master, Michael Winterbottom.

10 February 2020

By Tom Huddleston

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

Why this might not seem so easy

At first glance, the directorial CV of Blackburn-born filmmaker Michael Winterbottom could seem daunting. Not only is his body of work impressively large – 26 feature films and three TV series in 25 years, with no sign of slowing down – it’s also bafflingly diverse, taking in everything from globe-spanning political drama to intimate indie erotica, from highbrow period drama to broad, knockabout comedy.

Michael Winterbottom

This magpie sensibility was honed in Winterbottom’s early career as a jobbing TV director, overseeing everything from cineaste documentaries on Swedish silent film to episodes of Boon, Cracker and kids’ adventure Time Riders. In the decades since, he has resisted being tied to any one style: Winterbottom may be popularly known for loose-limbed, improvisational comedies like 24 Hour Party People (2002) and The Trip (2010), but compare those with the austere sci-fi of Code 46 (2003), or the full-throated intensity of Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), and they could be works by different filmmakers.

Look closer, however; there is order in the chaos. Roughly speaking, Winterbottom’s films can be sorted into four overlapping categories. There are the mainstream comedies, many of which star Steve Coogan as either a controversial figure from recent history or some version of himself. There are the literary adaptations, frequently of works by Thomas Hardy, though often transplanted to another time or place. There are the political films, which can either be drama, documentary or some combination of the two, and tend to explore themes that are still very much alive in the public discussion. And there are the character films: small-scale, inward-looking stories about families, sex and love.

The best place to start – 24 Hour Party People

24 Hour Party People (2002)

The most enjoyable entry point for Winterbottom first-timers has to be 24 Hour Party People, his rambling, sardonic and endlessly delightful comedy about the Manchester music scene from the late 70s to the early 90s. Told through the eyes of Anthony Wilson, the freewheeling, gleefully inexperienced co-founder of Factory Records, the film is at once a heartfelt evocation of a unique time and place, a satire on the music industry and the loveable bullshit-artists who keep it ticking. It’s a witty, capricious character study, sporting a career-best turn from Coogan as the maverick Wilson. The film is stuffed to bursting with in-jokes and cameos, and unsurprisingly features one of the best soundtracks of all time.

What to watch next

24 Hour Party People may be Winterbottom’s most approachable film, but it’s not quite his best. That honour falls to 1999’s Wonderland, an empathetic study of three sisters struggling to cope with their partners and each other over a long weekend in London. Thoughtfully written and dreamily photographed, the film has a flawless score by Michael Nyman – the composer’s own favourite – and compassionate performances from leads Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker. Wonderland’s iconic shot – of McKee wandering lonely through crowds of swirling, sped-up tourists and clouds of blinking neon as Nyman’s soundtrack swells – is one of the great images of our capital on screen.

Wonderland (1999)

Winterbottom would reunite with French screenwriter Laurence Coriat for two later projects: Genova (2008), in which Colin Firth plays an expat dad struggling to relate to his adolescent daughter, and Everyday (2012), a family drama shot over five years. Neither film quite recaptures the magic of Wonderland, but both are worth catching.

Of Winterbottom’s literary films, the best is undoubtedly Jude (1996), an adaptation of the director’s favourite novel, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, starring Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston as the cousins whose forbidden passion forces them to flee their community. Austere, frank and devastating, it’s as starkly beautiful as the novel itself.

Jude (1996)

Winterbottom’s second Hardy film is also worth tracking down. Working with his largest budget to date, the director adapted The Mayor of Casterbridge into The Claim (2000), a mournful icebound western set during the California gold rush of 1849. A critical and commercial flop, the film was gorgeously shot in the Canadian Rockies, where Winterbottom’s crew built an entire town in facade only to burn it down for the final scenes.

Winterbottom’s political films tread a fine line between objective reportage and emotive storytelling – and indeed the best of them, 1997’s Welcome to Sarajevo, explicitly explores this balance, as Stephen Dillane’s ITN reporter finds his journalistic detachment crumbling when he starts covering events at a local orphanage. Immersive, detailed and brilliantly soundtracked – witness the scene of translator Goran Visnjic wandering through the ruins of his city to the tune of The Stone Roses’ ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ – the film is brutal but thrilling.

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)

Almost as impressive is In This World (2002), a loosely fictionalised road movie following two young Afghans as they attempt to travel over land to the UK. Filmed on location in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey and utilising exclusively non-actors, the film is neither fiction nor documentary, but an effective fusion of the two.

Where not to start

Given his punishing production schedule, it’s hardly surprising that Winterbottom’s quality control occasionally falters. Don’t begin at the beginning: the director’s feature debut, lesbian psycho road movie Butterfly Kiss (1995), veers from freakily compelling to unintentionally amusing, thanks to star Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) and her bonkers, Bradford-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent. A later stab at confrontational boundary-pushing, 9 Songs (2004) is also one of his lesser efforts, a pseudo-pornographic relationship drama set to the music of Primal Scream and Elbow.

Butterfly Kiss (1995)

Some of Winterbottom’s recent output is better saved for deeper exploration too. Adapted from Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled novel, The Killer Inside Me (2010) is a decent thriller undermined by some truly vicious, attention-seeking violence against its female characters. Based on the Amanda Knox murder case, The Face of an Angel (2014) is comparatively shallow tabloid fare, while your enjoyment of anti-capitalist documentary The Emperor’s New Clothes (2015) depends entirely on your patience with frontman Russell Brand. Luckily, between these disappointments, Winterbottom has also treated us to three inspired series of improvised travelogue The Trip (2010, 2014, 2017), with another due to follow in 2020.

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