2023: the year in British cinema

A particularly challenging year for the sector still saw plenty of reasons for optimism, with a host of striking debuts finding audiences alongside big-budget fare from heavyweights like Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott.

11 December 2023

By Hannah McGill

How to Have Sex (2023)
Sight and Sound

Did the afterglow of Aftersun (2022) create a welcoming environment for little UK indies in 2023? Did an unprecedented £6.27 billion spend on UK film and high-end TV production over 2022 bear fruit? Have visible efforts to diversify the UK industry meaningfully impacted upon what stories we hear, and from whom?

Recollections will vary, of course – and complications are plentiful. A year that began with the long-tail effects of Covid still making themselves felt on cinema admissions and ended with the disruptions generated by the US writers’ and actors’ strikes was more than usually challenging for an always challenged sector. Despite that record inward investment figure for UK film and TV in 2022, celebrated in February, independent film production remains squeezed compared to high-end television and international co-productions. In November the producers’ body Pact warned the UK government that the independent film sector is “at the point of market failure”, with active government intervention essential to its survival.

An overview of the year’s more talked-about releases engenders a slight sense of plus ça change, with prominent films appearing to occupy long-established slots within British film culture. The likelihood of such films issuing from the hitherto underrepresented perspectives of women and people of colour, however, has increased: Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got to Do with It, Carol Morley’s Typist Artist Pirate King and George Amponsah’s Gassed Up all represent novel takes on very familiar formats: the arch country house mystery, the twinkly wedding-centric romcom, the quirky state-of-the-nation road movie, the gangster thriller.

Not that the more conventional model of a major British filmmaker – white, male and wealthy – was dormant. Christopher Nolan riveted international attention with Oppenheimer, Oliver Parker gave Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson their final film roles in The Great Escaper; and Ridley Scott rounded off 2023 with the release of his epic Napoleon. Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Richard Eyre’s Allelujah and Ken Loach’s The Old Oak all sought to speak not for the influential, but for the marginalised – victims of racism, poverty, public sector cuts and exploitation.

The Eternal Daughter (2022)

Whether for these filmmakers to take on these subjects represents responsible use of their own class power or paternalistic appropriation of experience, is not a question that will be settled in this column – or indeed, in the course of Loach’s career, since at 87, he now considers himself retired. Contenders to fill this vacated national treasure spot? We could look at promoting Andrew Haigh, whose thrilling engagement with human intimacy has continued and expanded with All of Us Strangers; or Joanna Hogg, whose upper-crust psychodramas took a ghostly turn with The Eternal Daughter, starring Tilda Swinton. Still more self-possessed and uncompromising is the work of Christine Lawlor and Joe Malloy, who have continued their artistic partnership with Baltimore (seen at festivals in 2023 and set for release next year), and that of Jon Sanders, who added the beautifully acted A Clever Woman to his small-scale, unconventional, defiantly middle-aged oeuvre.

What of those filmmakers at the very start of their journeys? Georgia Oakley set a high standard early in the year with her subtle and empathetic Blue Jean, and actor Neil Maskell tried dark comedy from behind the camera with his directorial debut Klokkenluider. Molly Manning Walker’s relationship drama How to Have Sex made a justifiable splash, evincing a warmth and empathy that lifted it far from the movie-of-the-week it could have been, and showcasing jaw-droppingly good performances by its young cast, led by Mia McKenna-Bruce. Also serving sensitivity and positivity, but with an energising twist of stylised comedy, were Charlotte Regan’s irrepressible Scrapper, Thomas Hardiman’s hairdressing whodunnit Medusa Deluxe and Raine Allen-Miller’s internationally acclaimed Rye Lane. Adura Onashile’s Girl was a quieter piece, but no one who saw it will forget its slow-burn intensity and exceptional lead performance by Déborah Lukumuena. Dionne Edwards’s Pretty Red Dress, meanwhile, starring the singer Alexandra Burke, used music as the way into its warmly immediate study of masculinity and responsibility.

Questions of identity and representation have been prominent within both movie plots and industry conversations in the past year – but approaches to this theme have been varied and energetic, rather than monotonously pious. Anyone still fretful about an excess of earnestness, however, or a dearth of experimental energy, might wish to consider Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, two of the most internationally acclaimed UK productions of the year. Each is a literary adaptation by a heavyweight author, each is a lavishly mounted period piece and each is directed by a known auteur – yet neither could be accused of being conservative, complacent or predictable. In a time of polarised politics and intractable financial woes, the place of both films in the Oscar-baiting big leagues plots a hopeful path for UK newcomers hoping to hang on to their individualism through the storms to come.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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