Christine Westwood reports from the Sydney Film Festival, where a number of British films are screening.

From zombies to high camp, from Hackney to the Scottish Highlands, the selection of UK entries showcased at Sydney Film Festival 2012 celebrates British creativity and originality, with occasional forays into eccentricity.

Harold’s Going Stiff may be the most eccentric. Described as a ‘truly original horror gem,’ this is a zombie movie with a very funny twist. Directed by Keith Wright in the style of a BBC documentary, the Harold in question is one of a group of northern Englishmen suffering from a mystery illness that turns them into the semi-dead.

Still in the wild and woolly north of England, Andrea Arnold’s remake of Emily Bronte’s enduring classic Wuthering Heights takes us deep into a visceral landscape of cold, mud and moorland as this new pairing of Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff (James Howson) struggle at the furthest edge of need and possession. Themes of prejudice and obsession are brought to the fore by the brutally sparse script, the evocation of a closed and unforgiving world and aided by the casting of black actors as the old and young Heathcliff, the ultimate outcast whose return wreaks a terrible revenge.

Further north still, the Highlands of Scotland are the setting for two UK entries, Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share and the Pixar animation Brave. Ken Loach (Wind that Shakes the Barley [2006], Kes [1969]) has never apologised for his socialist themes and Angels is no exception. The harsh reality of working class poverty and the challenges and pitfalls of forging opportunities to make a better life are the issues explored in this film. Like many of Loach’s protagonists, Robbie is trying to improve his situation against difficult social and financial odds. He is also at risk of being imprisoned, but hope emerges when he discovers he has a rare and marketable palate for malt whisky.

Billy Connolly was on the red carpet to present Brave, a cut-above animation from Pixar studios. Set in the Highlands of Scotland, this is a hero’s journey with a young female protagonist, Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald. Merida is a skilled archer and headstrong daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Joking about the wet Sydney weather, Connolly observed, ‘It reminds me of a Scottish heat wave.’ Speaking about his voicing on Brave he said, ”You have to give as good a job for a four-year-old as you do for an adult.’ He also praised the film’s main character Merida as being a strong role model for young audiences. ”It’s kind of silly to think it’s that powerful but I would like to think that girls will watch somebody insisting on going for their own destiny rather than be dictated as to what to do.’

Meanwhile, back in London, eccentricity reigns supreme in a documentary about party planner and style guru Andrew Lang. On Coronation Day 1953 young Lang won a costume competition and never looked back. The British Guide to Showing Off charts his career, through the Swinging 60’s, punk and the Alternative Miss World Show that he hosted through three decades. These were the parties that everyone wanted to crash; artists and film makers like David Hockney and Derek Jarman were part of the scene and cutting edge designers including John Galliano were influenced by Lang’s exuberant styling of events and the excess of his creations.

For mystery and classic cinema craft, British theatre and television director Barnaby Southcombe is in Sydney to present I, Anna along with producer Christopher Simon. The film, a noir-influenced adaptation of Elsa Lewin’s 1984 mystery novel of the same name, stars Southcombe’s mother, Charlotte Rampling, along with Gabriel Byrne. The film is stylish, with beautifully composed cinematography and an eye for fragmentation and detail that adds to the theme of forensic investigation and uneasiness. Byrne is well cast as the insomniac detective drawn by an unwitting femme fatale, played by Rampling with a compelling cocktail of vulnerability and mystery. Southcombe draws on a wide and eclectic range of cinema for his inspiration. When asked if he sees film as a universal language or more unique to each culture, he says, ‘I think we seek out foreign cinema as a means of cultural escapism and yet invariably we find ourselves reflected in the stories of such different people. It makes the world more relatable.’

Southcombe also had some insights into current themes and trends in British cinema in the last few years. ‘As the recession deepens and film budgets contract further there is a distinct move towards genre in the UK. With so little public money available, directors are being forced into more and more commercial fare. There are however some interesting examples of genre subversion like We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) and Kill List (2011). Tinker Tailor (2011) is also a stunning exercise in style.’

Mystery of a different sort is brought to the screen by director Carol Morley in Dreams of a Life. Morley uses a creative blend of documentary and dramatisation to throw light on the mystery behind the life and death of Joyce Carol Vincent who died in her London bedsit aged 38, her body not discovered for three years. Beyond the exploration of a life Morley’s question is, what sort of society could have allowed such neglect? The Guardian and Time Out critics have already praised the film as ‘unforgettable and ‘haunting’ and the film has picked up worldwide distribution.

But perhaps the most satisfying British offering from this year’s crop is My Brother the Devil, a first time feature by writer/ director Sally El Hosaini. According to festival director Nashen Moodley, the film is a stand out. ‘I am very impressed with My Brother the Devil,’ he says. ‘It’s a stylish and impactful film and Sally El Hosaini is a talent to watch.’ Deserving winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award (World Cinema) at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and winner of Best European Film at Berlinale 2012, the movie is a beautifully realised drama about two brothers who are faced with critical life choices in east London’s multi-ethnic gang underworld. The movie’s success is aided by rich cinematography and fly on the wall intimate direction, together with terrific performances, notably by up and coming actor James Floyd. El Housaini developed a strong script from four years of research among gangs in the east London suburbs, including her home turf of Hackney. ‘I was searching for something more authentic,’ says El Housaini in an interview at Sundance. ‘And that whole time I was soaking up the culture and the language with which to write.’ Summing up the movie’s powerful impact, she says, ‘It’s a universal story of brotherhood.’