Subversive Cinema: Anarchy From the U.K. - Rolling Stone
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Subversive Cinema: Anarchy From the U.K.

Several non-mainstream British films are bucking the country’s well-mannered image

Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa

English actor Bob Hoskins on the set of the film 'Mona Lisa', Great Britain, September, 1985.

Georges De Keerle/Getty

In Great Britain, where per capita government spending on the arts is about three times what it is in the United States, non-mainstream filmmakers have a different agenda. If the BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre is dedicated to shoring up Britain’s image for the crisp, literate and socially responsible, many alternative filmmakers have devoted themselves to pulling down the gentry’s trousers. Sid & Nancy is, like punk, the most extreme response; My Beautiful Laundrette, the most subversive. As a rule, the more violent and ugly the subject, the better.

A Room with a View, based on E.M. Forster’s novel, falls squarely in the Masterpiece Theatre tradition. But look again. What makes James Ivory’s film fun is that its stately compositions and stylish chapter titles are subtly undercut by the characters’ unruly libidos; there isn’t a significant scene in which the subtext isn’t sexual denial, panic or release. It’s a ”tasteful” comedy of manners with a sneaky, high-camp spirit.

Mona Lisa looks like a dirty little gangster thriller, but it’s really a debased modern myth. The thug hero, played with ripsnorting passion by Bob Hoskins, is the last chivalrous man, a frog prince who thinks he’ll be ennobled by the rescue of a prostitute (Cathy Tyson). He’s got it figured wrong, though: at the dead end of his quest are a pathetic drug addict, a lesbian love affair and a blood bath; the Holy Grail turns out to be a toilet. Director Neil Jordan is a maddeningly pretentious writer, but his staging, camera movements and knack for brutal violence are formidable.

In Letter to Brezhnev, two scrappy Liverpudlian lasses meet up with a pair of Russian sailors — their best romantic prospects in years. Chris Bernard’s comedy is ugly looking and full of sloppy diction, but of these films it comes closest to having a mainstream sensibility — there’s a lot of sentimental uplift. Unlike its American counterparts, however, it has a pervading sense of stifled possibilities in a country going nowhere.

No Surrender, another Liverpudlian comedy, has a great theme: hatred that persists (even intensifies) while the body withers and dies. In a Liverpool nightclub, a morbid practical jokester brings in three busloads of elderly pensioners for New Year’s Eve: Protestant loyalists, Irish Catholics and spastics. (Also present are a drunken terrorist and an ex-assassin.) The ensuing pandemonium doesn’t have the momentum of a great farce (which cost the film at the box office), but Alan Bleasdale’s script and Peter Smith’s direction are genuinely violent and tough-minded. In the best scene, an inept punk band takes the stage and smashes its instruments; the only oldsters who get into the destruction are the senile and spastic, who shriek with pleasure and pound on the tables. That moment speaks well for the British non-mainstream cinema. 

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