This year’s London Film Festival has played host to more than a dozen new British features, several of them world premieres. Many fall under the banner of the grim and uncompromising but instantly forgettable social-statement tracts that too many British filmmakers seem in thrall to, as if making your feature an unpleasant ordeal is the ultimate arbiter of artistic success. This year’s entries include Sket, a tiresomely misogynistic urban gang drama, and Junkhearts, the bitter tale of an ex-British soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress (Eddie Marsan) who takes a homeless girl (Candese Reid) into his flat with punishing consequences. Far more effective despite its disturbing subject matter was Dreams Of A Life, Carol Morley’s fascinating drama-documentary about a young woman whose dead body lay undiscovered in her London flat for three years. It’s a heartbreaking work that poses profound questions about modern life.
The three films with the greatest potential for life beyond the hothouse confines of film festivals, however, are The Awakening, Hunky Dory and Wild Bill. The former, directed by narrative-feature debutante Nick Murphy, debuted at TIFF and is a classic-mould ghost story set in post-World War I England that explores themes of loss, grief and repression and benefits from a classy central performance from Rebecca Hall. She stars as Florence Cathcart, a spiritual hoax-buster whose strong, capable exterior masks a wounded woman burdened by a tragic past and forced to confront her own spectral scepticisms when Dominic West’s assistant school-master asks her to investigate a haunting at his spooky boarding school.
The terrain Murphy treads has been well trampled in recent years, and the fact that he doesn’t bring anything new to the party leaves his film’s commercial prospects precariously poised. Elegantly evoking its 1920s setting, The Awakening unravels at a stately, measured pace, only to strangely rush past a few key elements and leave others hanging, while delivering its jolts with less panache than others of its ilk. Still, it’s a decent stab at an old-fashioned horror movie, and Hall, West and Imelda Staunton as the school’s austere nurse deliver well-judged performances. (It was picked up out of Toronto by the Cohen Media Group; trailer below.)
More impressive is Wild Bill, also a directorial debut for the actor Dexter Fletcher, whose career stretches back to the ‘70s (Bugsy Malone, The Long Good Friday) and who clearly paid some attention while working on the sets of Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) and Guy Ritchie (Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels). Fletcher shows proper directing chops of his own in his tale of an ex-drug dealer with a reputation for violence (Charlie Creed-Miles) who returns to his old East London tower-block stomping grounds upon release from prison and finds best laid plans waylaid by the two sons (The Chronicle Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader’s Will Poulter and Sammy Williams) who are fending for themselves after being abandoned by their mother. Played out against the backdrop of London’s burgeoning Olympic development zone (and dishing out some pointed commentary about the capital’s burgoneing rich/poor divide), Wild Bill is a sweet, absorbing family drama played out by characters who would face up to circumstances far harsher and bloodier had someone like Ritchie been at the helm. Bypassing the cartoonishly excessive realms of the modern British gangster film, Fletcher has created something far more interesting. Without any star names to push, Wild Bill – which was first shown at San Sebastian – might struggle for recognition beyond UK shores, but a smaller US distributor would be well advised to cast their eyes over Fletcher’s appealing debut.
When it comes to appeal, Marc Evan’s Hunky Dory has it in spades. If you were pitching the concept to a Hollywood studio exec in ADD mode, you’d say, “It’s Glee, but set in 1970s Wales!” That’s a slightly glib summation of the film’s ambitions, however, which are to recount the real-life tale of a dogged drama teacher (played with kooky appeal by Minnie Driver) attempting to mount a rock-opera production of The Tempest at a working-class Welsh high school. Opposing her are not just ornery educators who disapprove of her efforts to fill no-hoper Welsh kids with arty-farty aspirations, but the students themselves, who allow apathy, hormones, family issues and other everyday teen traumas to blow them off course. Shot in warm, bucolic tones, Hunky Dory buckles under the strain of having to cater to so many characters, and one or two other recognisable ‘70s pop tracks wouldn’t have gone amiss, as the film’s most exuberant moments come when you find yourself singing along (silently, of course…) to Bowie and ELO smashes like ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Strange Magic’. But it’s a sweet and lovely little film nonetheless.