British films at Sundance 2019

New features from Joanna Hogg and Chiwetel Ejiofor are among the UK productions hoping for their share of the Sundance hype that amps up the year in film.

Samuel Wigley

The Last Tree (2019)

The Last Tree (2019)

With year-end list season put to bed once again, the film world turns its attentions to the new year to ask: what looks good? As ever, the first concrete answers will come courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival, which – as the earliest major international festival of the year – will help send a few handfuls of brand new indies into 2019 on a wave of buzz.

This year, British films and co-productions feature throughout the programme in Park City, Utah, with most of them being seen for the very first time. The UK has four films playing in competition, including the new film from Joanna Hogg. Boasting Martin Scorsese as executive producer, The Souvenir is set in the 1980s and centres on the turbulent romance between a film student (Honor Swinton-Byrne) and an older man (Tom Burke).

Joining it in the world cinema dramatic competition is The Last Tree, the new one from A Moving Image director Shola Amoo, this time focusing on a British-Nigerian boy who’s uprooted from his Lincolnshire home to live in London. There’s also Dirty God, the English-language debut by Dutch director Sacha Polak, about a south London woman living with the after-effects of an acid attack.

In the parallel documentary competition, meanwhile, we’ll see Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler, in which the filmmaker documents his own family’s journey as they flee Afghanistan under threat from the Taliban.

Away from the awards contenders, there’s a slew of other UK world premieres. Netflix have already acquired Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Based on a bestseller by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, it’s set and shot on location in Malawi and tells the story of a 13-year-old boy’s efforts to save his village from famine.

The Souvenir (2019)

The Souvenir (2019)

Stephen Merchant also brings his first feature as solo director to the festival – that’s wrestling-family saga Fighting with My Family – while Gurinder Chadha returns with Blinded by the Light, about a Bruce Springsteen-obsessed Muslim boy growing up in 1980s Britain. If Miles is more your cup of tea, watch out for Stanley Nelson’s new doc Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, while – back on a coming-of-age tip – there’s also Sophie Hyde’s Animals, about two young drinking buddies (Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat) who are forced to shape up to the responsibilities of adulthood.

Official Secrets is a new political thriller from Eye in the Sky director Gavin Hood, and this one’s starry: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans dot the cast of this true-life tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked top-secret US government information in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The festival’s midnight screenings have developed a fearsome reputation for launching hot new horror titles, with The Babadook, Get Out and last year’s Mandy all among the alumni. British hopefuls this year are the US/UK co-production The Lodge from directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and – exciting for fans of his Tehran-set chiller Under the Shadow – the new one from Babak Anvari. That would be Wounds, which this time took Anvari to New Orleans to adapt the novella The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)

Elsewhere in the programme, you’ll find the US premiere for Victor Kossakovsky’s truly staggering ode to water, Aquarela, which has had ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki genuflecting in awe. Sailing doc Maiden by director Alex Holmes gets a US outing, all 10 episodes of the Stephen Frears-Nick Hornby marital comedy State of the Union will be unveiled, and the 200 million people who’ve watched animated web series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared will be psyched for the new episode that’s screening.

Sundance-going kids are offered The Elephant Queen, a savannah-shot, Apple-released documentary on the world’s largest land mammal by filmmaking partners Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble.

There are shorts too, both traditional – Ellen Evans’ documentary Life in Miniature and Sandhya Suri’s India-set The Field – and format-pushing: the VR experiences Emergence and Sweet Dreams and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s futuristic theatre piece The Seven Ages of Man.

All that and, in a special event with the filmmakers, Sundance will offer the first glimpse of Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s two-part series examining the sexual abuse allegations surrounding Michael Jackson.

Over in Park City, it’ll be as cold as ever, but the forecast for the year in moving images is looking bright.

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