What does a filmmaker do during a pandemic? For someone like Mike Leigh, whose work is built around improvisation and close collaboration, and who planned to start a new film last summer, all projects have been placed on hold. “It’s in the nature of what I do; social distancing and all the rest of it, I can’t make a film that way,” he said in a recent interview with Slate.
Others saw the opportunity to make something quickly and cheaply, with mixed results. Doug Liman sent Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor on a Covid-enabled London heist in Locked Down, a film that was shot in 18 days and released digitally to widespread shrugs at the start of 2021. Ben Wheatley is an old hand at shooting on the fly, so it should come as no surprise that he kept himself busy with horror movie In the Earth, which was written and shot in just over two weeks.
What unites these films is the fact that their expedited schedules and small productions allowed them to engage directly with current events: Locked Down was shot on the capital’s deserted streets and satirised unhappy couples forced to stick together under lockdown, while In the Earth evoked the anxiety and paranoia of the moment with its story of scientists seeking a cure for a raging virus. Even if these films don’t ultimately secure exalted positions in either director’s filmography, they may have value as artefacts of the strange times we lived through.
The rest of the British films released over the course of 2021 made no reference to Covid; in fact, many of them were recreations of bygone ages. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor was set in the 1980s, when the media-led ‘video nasty’ hysteria was rampant, while Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho explored the contrast between our enticing vision of Swinging Sixties London and its seedy, violent underbelly. Both films were made by filmmakers with a deep nostalgia for and curiosity about their chosen eras, but for all the fetishistic detail that went into their making, they ended up feeling like flashy, hollow genre exercises.
A second pair of directors, in contrast, succeeded by presenting authentic visions of their own youth on screen. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (2019) was a tough act to follow, but The Souvenir Part II is another extraordinary piece of work that feels like both a continuation and an expansion of the sublime first instalment. Hogg has grown as a director with every feature, and while her understanding of her characters’ subtle behavioural and emotional shifts is as acute as ever, Part II is funnier and more surprising, climaxing with a thrillingly bold coup de cinéma. Kenneth Branagh reached even further into his past for Belfast, a winningly sincere, stylish portrait of his childhood growing up amid sectarian violence which recalls John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) in the way it adopts a child’s perspective on a turbulent milieu.
The films of Terence Davies always feel deeply personal, and while Benediction may be a film about Siegfried Sassoon, Davies has poured so much of himself into this story about poetry, desire, time and faith that it feels quasi-autobiographical. The re-emergence of Davies as one of our greatest filmmakers after so many years in the wilderness has certainly been one of the most heartening developments of the past decade in British cinema.
And what of the new voices in the UK? Philip Barantini followed his 2020 debut Villain with Boiling Point, a riveting film about a chef nearing meltdown, filmed in one brilliantly choreographed take. It was shot immediately before the first lockdown, so perhaps we have Covid to thank for the nervous energy coursing through its veins. Lee Haven Jones impressed me with his slow-burn Welsh horror The Feast, Ben Sharrock’s endearing debut Limbo viewed the immigrant experience through a lens of deadpan eccentricity and Rebecca Hall displayed a real flair for expressive compositions and nuanced performances with the elegant and subtle Passing.
Elegance and subtlety are certainly not the first words you’d associate with Rare Beasts (2019, but out this year), Billie Piper’s chaotic directorial debut, which prompted plenty of walkouts at the screening I attended. Her film is loud, abrasive and makes no concessions to likeability. As I left the cinema, I wasn’t even sure what I thought of it, but Piper’s unwavering commitment to her idiosyncratic vision has stuck with me longer than many more immediately pleasurable films this year. Perhaps more than any of the other first-time directors mentioned here, I am very curious to see whatever she does next.