Remember Bend it Like Beckham? This modestly budgeted, moderately well received British picture was shot in the UK by a British director with largely British financial backing. It was a success at the UK box-office, more than making back its production costs with a patented post-Full Monty formula of low calories British social realism – gender and sport, complicated by family and ethnic ties – coupled with sitcom friendly characters and a romantic subplot. Further a field it was well received at a number of film festivals and did OK international business.
Now imagine a world where Britain produces, say, ten or twelve Bend it Like Beckham's every year. This scenario might be something like Purgatory for some, but is it not, arguably, the roots from which a sustainable British film industry might grow? Looking through the back issues of Sight and Sound, 2002 is gradually revealed to have been something of a good year for British cinema, with well regarded new work from old-stagers Frears (Dirty Pretty Things), Leigh (All or Nothing) and Loach (Sweet Sixteen) and up and comers Ramsay (Morvern Callar), Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) and Evans (My Little Eye) alike. But the truth is all of these were to some degree or other more beloved by critics than audiences. Typically the great unwashed preferred (when they preferred indigenous cinema at all) Ali G Indahouse or genre fare such as 28 Days Later and Dog Soldiers (whose compact charm has also generated rather better box-office internationally than most of those listed above). Happily, the Lottery-funded mockney gangster fiascos now seem to have run their course, but their commercial suicide was mirrored by a number of similarly ill-conceived star vehicles such as The 51st State, Crush and Charlotte Gray.
So, even in what is by recent standards a good year for British cinema (not that you would know this judging by the latest BAFTAs, increasingly an AMPAAS poodle – where was The Lawless Heart?) a dozen or so Bend it Like Beckham's is apparently too much to ask. All this, plus no Hugh Grant/Richard Curtis romcom crutch to lean on, little in the way of Miramax-funded frock dramas that bear no relation to contemporary Britain, and much of the American studio work being siphoned off by the better economic terms (and weather) offered by Australia and, post Lord of the Rings, New Zealand.
Which leads me, rather circuitously, to the 9th London Australian Film Festival which runs at the Barbican from 6–13 March (and which will be touring regionally later in the year). Most of the 21 features and documentaries on offer this year were released in Australia in 2002 and achieved some degree of critical and commercial success in their home continent (one of them, the comedy Crackerjack, was the highest grossing Australian film on home territory last year).
Two themes emerge from the selection of films, one artistic/sociological, the other industrial. Firstly, in the wake of the international profile of Rabbit Proof Fence (2001), which is also being screened at the festival, a number of the films deal with racial or Aboriginal issues. Not only is there a documentary charting the development of RPF (called, er, Following The Rabbit Proof Fence), but one of its stars, David Gulpilil reprises his role in that films as the titular character in The Tracker. Australian Rules tells of the impact of a star Aboriginal football player on a (white) fishing village's team. The closing film of the festival, Black and White, tells the true story of an Aboriginal charged with the murder of a white girl in 1950s Adelaide. (This is so far the only film in the festival to have secured UK distribution and will be reviewed at length on kamera.co.uk at a later date.)
Industrially speaking, what is interesting is the number of Australian performers who now have an international profile yet are happy to continue to keep at least one foot in the cinema of their home continent, presumably in light of the quality and variety of work on offer. Toni Collette, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Sam Neil and Kerry Fox all feature in this year's selection of films, as does Memento's (2000) Guy Pearce and Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths, who star in the one film I have seen from the line-up, the crime drama The Hard Word. Despite a clumsy screenplay (or, more particularly, clumsy dialogue) this fast-paced one-more-heist affair is the sort of slick, ballsy movie that Us Brits presumably thought we were making in Circus (2000) or Rancid Aluminium (2000). The differences being that director Scott Roberts knows what he is doing with his camera (as is evident even from the credit sequence, a prison yard basketball game of barely contained menace that eventually explodes into a punch-up), the cast are convincing and the film looks a treat.
No doubt Aussie cinema has its fair share of clunkers that are rejected domestically and international audiences never get to see. But the line-up for 9th London Australian Film Festival suggests an indigenous industry at ease with itself and in tune with the concerns and tastes of its domestic audience. Bowl it Like Warne, anyone?