by Dennis Harvey
In the multicultural U.S. of today, there’s no longer a great sense of kinship with the U.K., our onetime colonial master and for at least a couple centuries the country Americans felt a special love/hate (but mostly love) relationship toward. Yet there’s at least one arena in which Britain maintains as great an influence on Yankee culture as ever: Hollywood, where their imported talent continues to flourish in wildly disproportionate numbers.
This is particularly true in the realm of acting. Seventy-six years ago, there was outrage when a virtually unknown Englishwoman was cast in the most sought-after, iconically American movie role of her decade. (Once Gone With the Wind premiered, however, it was widely conceded that no one could have made a better Scarlett O’Hara than Vivian Leigh.) These days, we hardly blink when yet another acclaimed British actor is cast in a very ’murrican part, whether it’s David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma or Rosamund Pike as the she devil of suburbia in Gone Girl . While eyebrows might well be raised over the reverse—a U.S. actor taking on some quintessentially British character—it’s a given that U.K. thespians are more versatile, better trained, handle accents better, are just … better. Whether it’s true or not, there’s a perception that British actors go to school , learning Shakespeare and technique ’n’ such, whereas Americans grow up watching Beverly Hills, 90210 , then decide, “I want to be a star too!” No wonder, we think, that by comparison U.K. performers seem able to play just about anything.
Even more than usual, this year’s Mostly British Film Festival at the Vogue offers a showcase for Brit screen acting of the past, present and (in some star-making recent performances) future. The eleven-day program starting this Thursday encompasses many of the best U.K. (and a few Australian) features of the last two or three years. But it also brings back several old favorites and rareties, going back as far as 1927 (via the WW1 combat-reconstruction feature The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands ). Once again, there will be an in-person tribute to a revered star, and a mini-retrospective of their career.
This time the honoree is Malcolm McDowell, that reedy, edgy actor who will always be best remembered for playing Alex, leader of the violent rapist “Droogs,” in Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of A Clockwork Orange . That role somewhat typecast him as a sneering bad guy, in movies like Cat People and the infamous Caligula . A string of flops (plus some personal demons he’s happy to have conquered) gradually eroded his stardom, though he remains a busy professional today.
His Feb. 20 appearance at the Commonwealth Club will include an onstage conversation and the screening of a personal favorite, 1979’s Time After Time . The latter was a charming, inventive and suspenseful feature by writer-director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ) that imagined real-life War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells as the possessor of an actual time machine (like the one in his famous same-titled story), which he uses in pursuing Jack the Ripper from Victorian England to modern-day San Francisco. With McDowell delightful in a rare seriocomic-romantic lead as Wells opposite David Warner’s Ripper, Time After Time won admiring reviews but only modest box-office success in its original release. Nonetheless, it’s remained one of the star’s own best-loved films, particularly because it was the project that introduced him to actress Mary Steenburgen, whom he married and had two children with.
The McDowell-o-Rama (which is actually sort of a coda to this year’s Mostly British, its official Closing Night being Feb. 19) continues through the weekend with two other career highlights. The actor was virtually unknown when he was selected to star as the leader of student insurrectionists in 1968’s timely parable if….. He and director Lindsay Anderson worked together so well they collaborated again on the other two parts of an unofficial trilogy, O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). Less wellremembered is the final McDowell movie being shown here, 1976’s Aces High , a WWI action drama in which he leads a most impressive cast including Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, John Gielgud and Trevor Howard.
McDowell was a late arrival amongst the 1960s generation of new stars bred from the “Angry Young Man” school—thespians whose backgrounds and personalities reflected the popular vogue for British working-class after decades that favored more “refined,” aristocratic types. The sort he was replacing was exemplified by an actor world-famous in his day, but rather forgotten today—apart from his being the other British performer cast in Gone With the Wind . (Sadly, he was badly miscast as Scarlett’s true love Ashley Wilkes, and that uncharacteristically awkward turn is among the movie’s most dated aspects.) Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn recalls the life of a man whose death at age 50—his plane was shot down by Nazis en route to Spain in 1943—was an occasion for national mourning.
Amidst a straightforward chronicle of his various stage and screen successes (including classics The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion ), this pedestrian documentary springs one major surprise: The actor who personified the “English gentleman” was a constant philanderer, even to the point of having several long-term mistresses his long-suffering wife was well aware of. It’s noted that if he hadn’t delayed his final flight’s takeoff buying silk stockings for a girlfriend, he and fellow passengers might not have perished in enemy fire.
While Howard was hardly the only Brit actor to win simultaneous success at home and in Hollywood in the 1930s, there were many more whose stardom failed to extend beyond Old Blighty. One of the biggest was Jessie Matthews, a petite brunette who was the era’s preeminent U.K. screen musical star. In her case, it wasn’t that Americans rejected her so much as that she rejected them—apparently afflicted by nerves, she made one sojourn to Hollywood in 1935, but no film resulted, and the experience was enough to make her refuse all such future offers. In any case, her vogue didn’t outlast the decade even at home, where once WW2 broke out she seemed as frivolously outdated as an art deco costume ball.
Of course, since then we’ve since grown to very much like 1930s glamour again, and in their way Matthews’ films have the same silvery, luxury fantasy charm that the same period’s Astaire & Rogers musicals do. The Mostly British double bill on Feburary 14 features perhaps her two best vehicles, made back-to-back and directed by Victor Saville. Interestingly, in both she plays a performer trapped in a stage disguise. From 1934, Evergreen was her most beloved film, providing her dual roles as a musical hall headliner and the illegitimate child she gives up her career to raise. When the daughter comes of age, she finds stardom—but only by pretending to be her “remarkably youthful” 60-year-old mother making a “comeback.” Its Rogers & Hart score made Evergreen (which Matthews had also starred in on stage) a big hit.
The next year’s First a Girl was a remake of the gender-bending 1933 German comedy Viktor and Viktoria , which of course much later spawned the 1985 Julie Andrews film and subsequent Broadway musical. This version is as good as any of them, with Matthews as the luckless aspiring performer who gets a big break—albeit one contingent on her pretending to be a man in female drag. Naturally, this becomes a problem once she falls in love—and her crush object in turn experiences “confusing” feelings for “him.” With its racy double entendres and delightful production numbers, Girl in many ways holds up even better than the more famous Evergreen .
There are still more filmic flashbacks in Mostly British 2015: The popular annual “British Noir” program on this Friday pairs new thriller I, Anna (starring Charlotte Rampling, who made her screen debut in The Knack …and How to Get It exactly fifty years ago) with Carol Reed’s 1959 Our Man in Havana , a droll adaptation of a Graham Greene novel with Alec Guinness as a most reluctant Cold War spy. John Boorman’s 1987 Hope & Glory , a loosely autobiographical account of his childhood on the WW2 homefront, is being revived just before the local opening of its long-belated sequel Queen and Country on Feb. 27. Reaching back just to 1999, there’s a screening of Justin Kerrigan’s Human Traffic , a shrill portrait of druggy club kids over one wild Cardiff weekend that’s become a cult favorite.
But the bulk of the schedule is of much more recent vintage. Mostly British starts tonight with two acclaimed gritty thrillers starring fast-rising Jack O’Connell, who most recently played the lead in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken . In Yann Demange’s ’71 , he’s a British soldier accidentally stranded during a riot in a Belfast IRA stronghold, from which he must try to make his way back to base alive. In David Mackenzie’s Starred Up , his extremely volatile young offender is newly arrived in a prison where another inmate is the father he’s never known. It’s a very violent drama, but ultimately quite a rewarding one.
Other highlights include the latest from historied directors Michael Winterbottom (Everyday , shot over a five-year period), Ken Loach (Irish period drama Jimmy’s Hall ) and Mike Figgis (erotic thriller Suspension of Disbelief ). Younger talent is well-represented by the likes of writer-director Charlie Weaver Rolfe’s debut feature My Accomplice , which sets a wistful romantic comedy to the sounds of several up-and-coming Brighton rock bands.
Ranging beyond the U.K., Mostly British also offers one feature from South Africa (biopic Winnie Mandela , with Dreamgirls ’ Jennifer Hudson in the title role) as well as several from Australia. The latter include starry ensemble piece The Turning , which involves Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne and others in a weave of stories by leading contemporary Aussie novelist Tim Winton; and Charlie’s Country , with veteran Aboriginal actor David Gilpilil (Walkabout ) as a bush-raised tribal elder fed up with the limitations of life on a government-supervised reservation.
There are also several films from Ireland, which many bridle at considering part of the “United Kingdom.” In addition to the already-mentioned, ’71 , there’s Niall Heery’s comedy Gold starring Game of Thrones ’ Maisie Williams, and Dublin-set romance Standby with Jessica Pare (of Mad Men ) and Brian Gleeson—the latter son of Brendan, whom many (but not our own Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, alas) think gave last year’s finest screen performance by an actor as the beleaguered small-town priest in Calvary .
Mostly British Film Festival. February 12-22. The Vogue, 3290 Sacramento, SF. www.mostlybritish.org. EatDrinkFilms is Co-Presenting Riot Club and My Accomplice at Mostly British. Please add at the bottom with links to the films.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.