Recap: British cinema in 2022

It’s been an eventful year for the nation’s cinema scene, with triumphs – the BFI London Film Festival, a number of sterling homegrown releases – tempered by dark developments in Scotland.

BFI SouthbankSamuel Regan-Asante

The story of British cinema in 2022 was dominated by news from Scotland. After a well-received move back to August under the new creative directorship of Kristy Matheson, it appeared that the 75th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival marked a return to former glories. All the more shocking, then, that in early October the Centre for the Moving Image announced that it had called in administrators, and that the festival, as well as the Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Belmont in Aberdeen, would cease trading with immediate effect.

The closures were blamed on rising costs combined with reduced custom as fewer cinemagoers returned after the pandemic, and led to 102 people losing their jobs. Several recent bids to take over the Edinburgh venue, including a promising one from the owner of the Prince Charles Cinema in London, have been unsuccessful. While the ‘Save the Filmhouse’ campaign continues to fight on, the future of both venues and the festival remains uncertain.

A poster for Cléo de 5 à 7 at the Edinburgh FilmhouseTruus, Bob & Jan too

Earlier in the year, we might have predicted smoother sailing, even still waters, for British cinema, with stalwart Kenneth Branagh picking up the Outstanding British Film Bafta for his drama Belfast, a black-and-white character piece inspired by his own childhood. It was the first of two Branagh films to succeed at the box office this year, the other being his star-studded Poirot film Death on the Nile. When it came to selling the most tickets this year, Branagh seemed to have landed on three of the dominant trends for popular British cinema: period nostalgia (as in the Downton Abbey sequel, Operation Mincemeat, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris and the late Roger Michell’s final fiction feature The Duke); Irishness (with Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin performing just as well as far less challenging fare); and Agatha Christie (pastiche See How They Run also performed well). When it came to the old guard, two exceptionally strong films by respected British arthouse directors found favour with critics and audiences: Terence Davies’s sensitive Siegfried Sassoon biopic Benediction and Clio Barnard’s middle-aged culture-clash romance Ali and Ava.

Younger filmmakers also paired with veteran stars to rejuvenating effect. Of particular note was Oliver Hermanus’s tender Kurosawa revisit Living, starring Bill Nighy as the civil servant galvanised by a terminal diagnosis, described by Philip Kemp as “a rare example of the remake of a masterpiece that can stand alongside the original”. Sophie Hyde’s hilarious Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, in which Emma Thompson plays a widow on a belated journey of sexual awakening was another hit. Hyde and Thompson are both on fine form, and Katy Brand’s debut feature screenplay bursts with wit and not a little wisdom.

There were some very welcome jolts to the system too from the younger generation; not least the cheerfully predictable success of West End transfer Matilda the Musical, which debuted at the BFI London Film Festival and will capitalise on its popularity with schoolchildren in the new year with a singalong format, designed to be more immersively interactive than streaming the film at home on Netflix. It was a popular triumph for the capital’s festival, which BFI Festivals Director Tricia Tuttle, who announced she will be stepping down, is leaving on a high note.

NFT1 rapidly filling up during the London Film Festival© BFI/Millie Turner

However, it was the presence of some remarkable feature debuts, and films from emerging filmmakers, mostly women, that provided the surest signs of renewal in British cinema this year. Frances O’Conner’s revisionist Brontë biopic Emily benefited from an intense lead performance by Emma Mackey in a demanding role; Sight and Sound critic Leigh Singer was delighted that its “creative rewriting of emotional truth hits the heights for which it strives”. After rave reviews at Toronto, it was released in October.

Georgia Oakley’s debut Blue Jean, starring Rosy McEwen as a gay teacher in 1980s, whose job is threatened by the unwelcome arrival of Section 28, won acclaim at festivals this year and will be released in February. Caspar Salmon enjoyed its play on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and called it a “twisty, sometimes discomfiting story”. The biggest critical success of all, which swept the boards at the British Independent Film Awards, was Charlotte Wells’s emotionally mature and bittersweet Aftersun, in which newcomer Frankie Corio plays an 11-year-old girl on holiday in Turkey with her drifting father, played devastatingly by Paul Mescal. It’s a nostalgic film too, set in the 90s, but in a particularly personal vein, and Singer was one of the many critics to praise the film’s “vitality, subtlety and promise”.

Poignantly, Scottish director Wells wrote in Sight and Sound about the “sense of place and belonging” she felt in the Edinburgh Filmhouse as a child. “[It] was such an essential part of my growing up in Edinburgh; it was a place of discovery. It was the first place I ever saw a film. I think of browsing through the DVDs, walking past the posters outside, seeing films represented that I didn’t see anywhere else.” Crucially, it was also the place where this brilliant young filmmaker got her first chance to hold a movie camera. May it return before too long.

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