Hope Lies At The Edinburgh Film Festival – Dispatches From The Field #3

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Rob Girvan is covering the Edinburgh Film Festival for Hope Lies. You can follow him on Twitter for up to the minute commentary. In this, the third instalment of this year’s odyssey, Rob bemoans the state of British cinema.

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Last weekend Mike Figgis threw something of a hand grenade at the British film industry in an article published by the Guardian. While decrying local film festivals (which included a name check for Edinburgh) for refusing to host his new film, Figgis made a wider point that the funding system currently in place favours only  the “kitsch’n’sink scene” – that is, mainly films about the rich or the very poor.

While he has a point, Figgis is missing another perplexing part of the industry. Those attempts to make films to appeal to a wide audience, but due to their own inherent blandness, never make it onto cinema screens, let along the direct to DVD market.

If the current crop of British films seen at this year’s Edinburgh festival are anything to go by, we are in a lot of trouble. While as ever, there are one or two pieces (and my comments do not apply to British documentaries, which have been great so far) which convince you that the malaise in the system can be reversed, it is against a tidal wave of worthy, but in the end, disappointing features.

Take We Are the Freaks for example. A film which appears to be attempting to evoke the spirit of The Inbetweeners, with  political subtext wielded onto it, and in the end fails at achieving either very well. Set in 1990, on the day that Thatcher resigned, the film follows three young men on the brink of transitioning from school to university/the wider world.

Jack, coming from a poor background, aspires to study creative writing at Bristol University. His friend, Chunks, is rich and bored and wants nothing more than to drift along in life having fun. Filling out the gang is Parsons, who comes from the sort of middle class existence where he has fantasies about Thatcher.

Set over the course of one evening, the film attempts a British version of the American Graffiti/Dazed and Confused template whereby our heroes drift in and out of each other’s lives over the evening. Sadly none of the characters come across as anything other than slightly obnoxious and stupid, and not in the fun way.

In trying to capture that Inbetweeners feel, the team behind We Are the Freaks forgot to bring the human touch which made that gang resonate with so many people in the UK. There is also no real reason for this to be set in 1990. In the end the Thatcher moments don’t really add up to much of anything. One of the characters goes to a rave, but it might as well have been a nightclub this year given the lack of detail to the setting.  You wonder if there was perhaps a more political edge to proceedings which was subsequently watered down in the quest to become more commercial.

On the positive side, the synth score by Vincent Watts is excellent, and director Justin Edgar films with aplomb. He will have a good career moving forward. Michael Smiley, in one of his many appearances during the festival (and these reviews) is a welcome sight and is involved in most of the films best moments.

It is difficult to recommend We Are The Freaks, even if its intentions are worthwhile. You can’t manufacture coolness irrespective of the soundtrack from early 90s bands you pull together. There is potential within the film, but this feels more like a building block towards better things.

Very much in the same vein is Svengali, a movie which is targeting the exact same audience as We Are The Freaks, and while set in the present day, is also harking back to the early 1990s.

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Dixie, a lad from a small town/village in Wales has dreams of becoming the manager for the next big London band. Leaving home and taking his inexplicably smarter girlfriend along for the ride, they hit the London scene and find out that the music business isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

Based on a Youtube series, Svengali is a pretty traditional fish out of water tale. We get the scenes of our couple being given the worst flat in the city. We see them struggling to get a step on the ladder, until one chance encounter. And then we see the rise, inevitable fall and subsequent life lesson. Rinse. Repeat.

What Svengali doesn’t have is a decent sense of pacing. At 90mins, it should not feel as long as it does. That is because the production team felt it was important to cram in cameos and an inexplicable trip to Scotland as the third act is finally building to a head. Was there some requirement for scenes to be filmed in Scotland? I have no idea, but it should have been cut.

Martin Freeman turns up for what looks like a day’s filming as the owner for a record shop. He does not interact with anyone from the rest of the film other than the main character. He gives Dixie a job in one scene, and then sacks him in the next. We never see Dixie work in the shop. Freeman adds nothing to the film. He is in there because he is the star of The Hobbit, not because it is good story telling.

On the plus side, the main couple, played by Jonny Owen and Vicky McClure give some nice performances, although  it does take a leap of imagination to buy that smart, urban McClure would continue to be with bumbling, Tesco bag carrying (and he carries it everywhere) Owen.

Another problem is that the band Dixie ends up being manager for are so unsympathetic that you really don’t buy into the dream. Perhaps that is a deliberate choice, but without a goal to head towards, the audience is left adrift.

Some of the cameos work better than others. Morwenna Banks appears to have wandered in from a broad 1980s comedy series on Channel 4. Katy Brand, playing an Eastern European landlady is uncomfortable (why exactly does she need the accent?) and perhaps even worse, not funny. Michael Smiley also turns up in this, but doesn’t have a huge amount to work with. Music producer Alan McGee has an extended role, and while the man cannot act, he was fun to watch.

You can see what Svengali is aiming for, but it stops and starts so often that you never settle into the story. For example, Dixie has two separate moments where he has to speak to two separate band members who decide to quit at two different points in the film.  You only really need one of those moments (and preferably not the one that involved a trip to Scotland). A journey back to Wales in the second act for Dixie should really have been put at the beginning of the film, to set up the stakes of his London dream.

Perhaps Svengali would work better as a television series. At the moment it is a 90-minute film which feels like it is actually 2 hours long. Disappointing.

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At the other end of the age spectrum is A Long Way From Home. Director Virginia Gilbert writes and directs the film from an adaptation of her own short story. Set in the French countryside, the film stars James Fox as Joseph and Brenda Fricker as Brenda, playing an older couple who moved from the UK to enjoy the quiet life.

We learn that even in paradise, people can be caught up in the daily grind of routine – doing crosswords in the morning, lunch at the same restaurant etc. Joseph is clearly unengaged and looking at the older residents of the town, fearing his own imminent journey into the elderly stage of his life.

Just in the nick of time Joseph meets Suzanne (played by Natalie Dormer) and Mark (Paul Nicholls) a British couple on holiday who represent the youth and excitement that he is clearly craving. This manifests itself in what in the film can only be described as “gentle stalking” by Joseph. This includes hanging outside the young couple’s hotel, and trying to engineer a trip for he and Suzanne to a vineyard in the countryside and so it goes on.

It goes without saying that this is a slow paced drama, and is a gentle enough watch, but is really let down by the performances. The usually reliable James Fox doesn’t seem to be too sure how to approach the material. Sometimes he plays his pursuit of Suzanne as a metaphor for youth which I suspect was the intention. Other times however, he does seem to suggest a sexual subtext to things with looks which linger to the point of being very uncomfortable.

As the young couple Dormer and Nicholls don’t have much to do. Dormer is ok, but is capable of so much more. Paul Nicholls will never be one of the greats, but in fairness to him the script really isn’t there to support the performance. In one particular scene, Nicholls, who is supposed to be a professional businessman, appears to be stunned by the idea that “it isn’t what you know, it is who you know” when it comes to running a company.

Far and away the best thing about A Long Way From Home is Brenda Fricker who is starring in a much better film than the rest of the cast. She embeds what could have been a very simple role with warmth, humour and at the same time a steely centre which shows itself in the odd look she gives here and there.

Sadly I do not think that this is enough to justify sitting through the full film. If it was a one off TV movie which appeared on ITV on a Sunday evening, it might well pass the time nicely. But on the big screen it just doesn’t translate well.

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The closing gala film, Not Another Happy Ending, is the final in this batch of reviews. Starring Karen Gillan as an aspiring writer in Glasgow, who gets her first book onto the market due a rude yet passionate (and good looking) publisher played by Tom Weber, this is an attempt at a Scottish rom-com.

There is often a perceived notion that romantic comedies are easy to make. You bring a good looking cast together, throw in some jokes and challenges for the characters to overcome and you are done and dusted. Not a chance. Like any film, to make an audience not only like a character, but want to see them get the boy/girl requires a lot of attention to the writing and performances.

Not Another Happy Ending gets the casting right, but is let down by the script which really feels like it needed another rewrite.

Karen Gillan does well with the material she is given, but with her vintage clothing, massive Casio watch and inexplicably huge house, she feels like the sort of person Paul Dano was writing about in Ruby Sparks. Funnily enough Not Another Happy Ending shares the idea of a writers character coming to life. While Amy Manson plays Gillan’s fictional creation well, her sole function is to tell the audience what they already know, unless they have never ever seen a rom-com in their life.

Much like Svengali, the pacing is all over the place. Following meeting her estranged father (a commendable Gary Lewis) a pub quiz tournament that he competes in is used as a subplot throughout the film. The prize? A trip to Disneyland. You would expect a script would make this prize be part of the payoff in the final act. Perhaps a last ditch attempt to get the girl back at the airport? But it goes nowhere. It is never mentioned again.

I am all for Scottish cinema to get away from the grim and gritty, and try and show a young modern vibrant people. But whereas something like the brilliant Frances Ha (which I will review shortly), just shows without telling, Not Another Happy Ending tells without showing. I really wanted to like this, but was left disappointed that once again that I had watched yet another undercooked British film that clearly needed more work before getting to the production stage.

This year hasn’t been a total flush – For Those In Peril is great for example, but the majority of the UK produced material has been subpar and that is something to be disappointed in. They all share a lack of pacing, of developed scripts and in trying to be as broad as possible, miss the boat on attracting any audience to take a chance and watch the film on the big screen. Of course, there will be disappointments every year, but something is clearly wrong when many of the films I have liked at this years EIFF have come from countries with far fewer people and resources than the UK.

British cinema can produce amazing films (and Ben Wheatley’s upcoming A Field In England should help to restore some of my faith) but so much of what comes out is not seen, and I can’t hand on heart say that is a bad thing. I know that there is a general sense that being too hard on British films is somehow going against home team, but unless the industry actually starts producing the goods, what is the point of supporting it?

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