A Look At Life: Films For Grown Ups

17th February 2012

Films for Grown Ups

Jack Watkins

Thirty years ago this month, Chariots of Fire took the annual Academy Awards ceremony by storm when running off with four Oscars, and the film’s screenwriter Colin Welland stepped up to the podium to declare – rashly – “The British are coming!” to a shocked array of Hollywood greats.

It never really happened, though, did it? Where’s Colin Welland today? More to the point, Chariots of Fire’s director, the wonderfully talented Hugh Hudson, hasn’t made a feature film in over ten years – a typically British film industry tale of an overlooked genius. For Hudson, read also Ken Russell and Michael Powell in earlier generations, similarly allowed to drift away.

Whether in Britain or America, they don’t make films like Chariots of Fire anymore; films that are modestly but not meanly budgeted, literately scripted, intelligently cast and acted, artfully but unshowily photographed… or do they? Surely films such as The King’s Speech, Brighton Rock, Black Swan and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy contradict such a gloomy assessment?

Sadly not.

Look at what’s on offer at your local Odeon or Cineworld this weekend and I’ll bet the fare is depressingly predictable.

When I interviewed Hugh Hudson a year or so ago he told me of the struggles to finance a film today on a budget roughly similar to that of Chariots of Fire (around £10 million in today’s terms) – no blockbuster, but not cheap either: too expensive to be sure of recouping their losses (an incredibly difficult thing to predict at the best of times, Mr Cameron, so please don’t make any more foolish pronouncements on the subject when, as the man who axed the UK Film Council, you clearly know and care so little about the industry) – and too ‘niche’ to get big studio marketing departments weighing in behind them, they are just not being made.

Yet when you study the line-up of this year’s Oscar nominees you can see what everyone with a brain is crying out for. It is for quality fare, not blockbuster dross, or films in which techno-geeks in the post-production special effects department seem to have had greater control over what ends up on the big screen than the director or writer, and where acting standards are on the level of robots.

The infantile nature of these films has also had the regrettable result of driving away an older audience for whom a trip to the flicks is now something to indulge in perhaps once or twice a year at most. They are simply repelled by what’s on offer. Of course, no-one has to go to cinema, but it’s a depressing trend.

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest film Midnight in Paris recently. Good old Woody. He’s a torch bearer for the sort of American movie that used to be quite common in the 1970s: liberal, a little middle class perhaps, but films that were essentially stimulating, films that challenged the brain. Back then they didn’t just aim for the lowest common denominator. Actually, Allen’s films don’t quite fit into the Chariots of Fire category, either, for they are generally shot both quickly and cheaply (which accounts for his still prolific output) and equate more to the European art-house movies which so influenced his style.

This generates another irritation. Fancy nipping along to see some new continental release of which you’ve read a promising or intriguing review?

Think again, unless you can get to central London, where, if you’re lucky, somewhere might screen it for – oh! – all of a week.

For all this, I read that British cinema ticket sales smashed through the £1 billion barrier in 2011, so they must be getting something right. Or is it just that now the calculation includes the revenue from all those popcorn boxes that are stinking out auditoriums across the land?

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