Reel Releases: Royal jubilee prompts look at jewels of British cinema

My wife, as I have mentioned before, was born and bred in Britain. While that does not ordinarily affect our day-to-day lives – with the exception of lawn mowing requests sounding rather more elegant – her heritage has become significantly more prominent in recent days.


A royal jubilee will do that.

Though Joanne has never been a particularly passionate royalist, she does take pride in her homeland’s monarchal history. Speak ill about the queen, and she won’t hesitate to bring down the bejeweled scepter of English pride – figuratively speaking. As a result, we spent considerable time tuned into various Diamond Jubilee events.

Though the celebrations have not made me feel particularly English, it has reignited some of my anglophile tendencies. It has, in particular, whet my appetite for some of the finer, and more distinctively English, examples of that country’s cinema. Here are a few of my favorites.


BLOW-UP (1966): Set in and styled after the Swinging ’60s scene that produced the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Carnaby Street, this striking film about a jaded photographer who discovers a mystery hidden in one of his own images is smart and stylish and beautifully captures the spirit of young England at a very particular place and time. The film was remade, using audio as its gimmick, as the John Travolta vehicle Blowout.

THE 39 STEPS (1935): We sometimes forget that before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood, he had established himself as a successful director in his native England. Much of what he brought to his successful American movies were techniques and tricks he developed early in his career. One of his more interesting English movies is this spy story rife with misdirection and audience manipulation. Nearly 80 years after its premiere it still stands up as an excellent, and unusually intelligent, thriller.


WITHNAIL & I (1987): There’s a very particular rhythm found in the very best British comedies. It plays like a jazz musician, lagging just behind the beat. The result is a style that depends on dialogue and a natural inclination for absurdity. One of the very best examples of this is director Bruce Robinson’s character-driven tale of two out-of-work actors trying, with dire results, to cash in on a country vacation.


PERFORMANCE (1970): Critics have often derided this rock and roll gangster film as being unorganized and overly pretentious. I disagree. I find it to be an important culmination of everything that had been learned and incorporated into English cinema up until that point. It is about much more than its story or star (Mick Jagger). It is a treatise on why movies affect an audience the way they do.


IF… (1968): Set in a very English boarding school, this black comedy about conformity and rebellion succeeds because it completely understands the microcosmic society in which it is set and exactly how to bend and exploit it for its own storytelling needs. A beautiful blend of nearly documentary and absolutely absurdist cinema, it keeps surprising its audience until the very final frame.



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