Recently, Joanna Hogg — the doyen of a certain icy, formalist British cinema — released her first sequel, or, as she would no doubt prefer it to be described, “a continuation”. The Souvenir Part II is the follow-up to her much-acclaimed 2019 picture The Souvenir. It continues to detail the Bildungsroman-esque antics of Hogg’s alter ego Julie, as played by Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne. Coincidentally enough, the actress is also Hogg’s goddaughter.
The character ended the previous film with her louche older boyfriend dying of a heroin overdose (naturally, in this most upper-middle-class of milieus, at the Wallace Collection), and so the new Souvenir explores the aftermath, as Julie exorcises her loss by making a film about it. As, of course, Hogg herself has done. Cinema-as-posh-therapy therefore has another exponent, except this time the public are invited to pay their £10 and solemnly chin-stroke at the result.
Whether you agree that the film is “a flood of austere sunlight” (Bradshaw, The Guardian) or a tedious and regrettably nepotistic exercise in self-regard (commentators who are usually very quick to attack such flagrant examples of tight-knit privilege on screen have been absent, perhaps distracted by the full glare of Hogg’s vision), it is undeniably the case that, for all of the good reviews and presumed appeal to a certain sector of the intelligentsia, neither film has seen any particular success at the box office. The Souvenir Part II opened to less than £100,000 in its first weekend, albeit in reasonably limited release, but the absence of any BAFTA nominations means that it is unlikely to gather any momentum. So its success, such as it is, must be measured in its critical regard.
I am bored to tears by the dominance of Marvel at the box office
Writing as someone whose facial expression when leaving the premiere of Hogg’s ultra-austere 2010 picture Archipelago cheered a friend so much that she subsequently credited it with shaking her out of a severe depression, I have mixed feelings about the financially nondescript performance of independent British films. On the one hand, I am bored to tears by the dominance of Marvel and their ilk at the box office, and welcome a chance for a committed auteur such as Hogg to make a stand against empty, big-budget flatulence, even as it amuses me that her regular star Tom Hiddleston has taken the comic-book dollar for his increasingly embarrassed appearances as the villainous character Loki.
On the other hand, I am depressed about what is happening to British cinema in 2022, even without the damage that the pandemic has wrought. A combination of commercial pressure and fears about “representation” has seen filmmakers attempting to achieve the impossible. They wish to make films that are going to make money and achieve strong reviews, so that cinemas can continue to show things that aren’t Spider-Man: No Direction Home and the like. If they want funding, however, they have to work within increasingly aggressively enforced parameters, in which received ideas of diversity and representation have to be observed, regardless of how talented the filmmakers are. Amidst the difficulty in making films that people might actually want to pay to see, without being lynched by the tight-lipped puritans of social media, British filmmakers are haplessly caught in the middle.
Some, like Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott, have long since dealt with the problem by heading to Hollywood and the far larger budgets offered there. Others, like Danny Boyle and Stephen Frears, have alternated between cinema and television, where lower budgets are at least compensated for by better scripts and greater artistic freedom. But these men — and the British film industry remains a male-dominated one, despite or because of Hogg’s efforts — are all in a position to pick and choose projects that interest them, having established their considerable reputations decades ago. Nolan has been candid about the lack of interest that he met with from British sources of funding at the outset of his career, which compelled him to head to America, where he made Memento. Would that he, and others, had found opportunities here in the first instance.
But it is this National Lottery-funded blindness that has put British film in its current, unhappy quandary. The BFI Production Fund, which administers the awards, prioritises work that “has cultural relevance or progressive ideas”, “takes risks in form and content” and is “originated by filmmakers outside London and South East England”. This would immediately disqualify the likes of Leytonstone’s Alfred Hitchcock, Croydon’s David Lean and Kent’s Michael Powell, to name but three of British cinema’s greatest directors, both for being white men and for their place of birth. It would also make Hogg’s path to funding harder, under normal criteria, but family connections will usually find a way.
I am aware I am part of the problem, even as I take my seat
Simon Heffer recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph that there has not been a great British film since 1980’s The Long Good Friday. Simon Heffer is wrong, and not for the first time, either. Any country that can produce the wildly disparate likes of Withnail and I, Prick Up Your Ears, Four Lions, Trainspotting, Brazil, Shakespeare in Love, Shadowlands, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Madness of King George, Under The Skin, Sexy Beast, Hamlet (the Branagh version), Remains of the Day, Hope and Glory, Skyfall, Paddington 2, The English Patient and Dunkirk — Nolan’s return to his home country — has hardly struggled to come up with successful pictures that audiences want to go see.
It is notable that most of the above films were either box office hits or cult triumphs, often produced by directors and writers who had honed their craft in other industries, whether acting, the stage or advertising. There is a deep well of professionalism in British cinema, across its sectors, that is increasingly being subsumed either to the financial imperatives of American film, or the smaller budgets that independent cinema in this country can offer. Wealthy and famous actors such as Tilda Swinton can afford to work for next to nothing as favours to their friends, but the vast majority of craftsman and technicians — to say nothing of performers — are unable to do so, not least because the pandemic has so rigorously compromised their earning abilities over the past couple of years. So they cross their fingers for work on Mission Impossible 8, and hope for the best.
I would, I must confess, rather see Mission Impossible 8 than The Souvenir Part VIII, or whatever else Hogg chooses to lavish us with in the future. But I am aware that I am part of the problem, even as I sheepishly take my seat at the Curzon Oxford. Without compelling films to spend my money on, presented by brilliant writers and directors and great actors, I am not going to bother to see homegrown cinema anymore. So there will be less chance for a Hitchcock, Lean or Powell — or a Lindsay Anderson, Bruce Robinson, Sam Mendes or, God help us, a British female film director such as the late Antonia Bird, who made brilliant commercial pictures without compromise — to emerge. That, frankly, is even more of a tragedy than a posh bloke dying of a skag overdose in the Wallace Collection.
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