Savvy British offerings
by Sura Wood
In any given month, the calendar is packed with local film events, many of them very good, but the Mostly British Film Festival, established about a decade ago by former Chronicle movie editor Ruthe Stein, seems to get better every year. That impression is borne out by Stein's savvy programming of mostly though not exclusively British classics and new releases, and the festival's opener, Their Finest, a well-appointed wartime comedy from Lone Scherfig, director of An Education. It's set in England when the country's movie industry is gamely pursuing uplifting, heart-rending stories designed to soothe a weary public pummeled by the Blitz. Gemma Arterton, as a spunky young screenwriter, is part of a crackerjack ensemble of British stalwarts – Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan, et al. – but for my money, the lanky Bill Nighy, who plays a pompous actor past his prime, forced to endure the indignities of a role unworthy of his talents, is a big reason to see the film. With a reputation as the primo scene-stealer in the business, Nighy has been enjoying an extraordinary run, both as a stage actor, mostly recently on Broadway in Skylight, and in movies such as Love Actually, where he was a washed-up rocker, and as a tentacle-covered villain in Pirates of the Caribbean, the kind of movie franchise that pays for the polo ponies, a country house and a closet full of bespoke suits. A natty dresser known for his rapier wit, wry delivery and self-effacing charm, Nighy will introduce the screening and be interviewed afterward by A.C.T artistic director Cary Perloff.
Heartstrings, along with some erogenous zones, are tugged in Handsome Devil, from gay Irish writer/director John Butler. His genuinely sweet coming-of-age story is about two gay teens navigating their sexual identities, the tyranny of fitting in and the daily terrors of boarding school, which Ned, a sensitive, red-haired loner with a taste for David Bowie, regards as a prison – and one can see his point. Ned, the narrator of the tale, tries to avoid the taunts of the resident homophobic bully and his buddies, who sense his ambiguous sexuality, while a bigoted macho rugby coach, itching for a championship, exacerbates matters. Ned's fortunes appear to change for the better, however, when he's assigned a new roommate, Conor, a rugby star and a dreamboat to boot who, as it turns out, is closeted and nursing hidden sorrows of his own. The boys tentatively build an unlikely friendship that's tested by the prejudices surrounding them. The first-rate cast has a lot of heart, but Andrew Scott, who often plays baddies like Moriarty on the PBS series Sherlock Holmes, is especially good as an unorthodox English teacher with a covert personal life. Like the soulful wisdom it imparts – knowing when it's more dangerous to keep secrets than to reveal them, the importance of finding one's voice and the value of a true friend – Handsome is simply irresistible.
Terence Davies' portrait of the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson may be titled A Quiet Passion, but thwarted passion might have been more on-point. In this beautifully photographed film the gay British director surveys the barren emotional wasteland of Dickinson's formal upbringing and repressive New England milieu, with painstaking attention paid to period interiors that are as stifling as a doll's house. Dickinson's rebellious spirit is squelched early, and her yearning for love frustrated – she never married, and became a recluse – but her deep reservoir of feeling and romantic imagination were given eloquent voice in the lyrical poetry she left behind. A long distance from the feisty, cosmopolitan Miranda of Sex and the City, Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson, buttoned-up, strapped in and finally succumbing to a secluded, stultifying existence in the bosom of her family. It's like watching a hothouse flower wilt before one's eyes.
An antidote for cabin fever after weeks of rain, the 1924 silent adventure film Epic of Everest offers an opportunity to experience the great outdoors with all of the excitement and none of the attendant risk. Impeccably restored and its original colored tints reintroduced by the British Film Institute National Archive, it's the official record of the arduous third attempt to scale the summit of the world's highest peak. Shot under grueling conditions with a hand-cranked camera by Captain John Noel, the film's cinematographic achievements and forbidding beauty are all the more stunning when one considers the primitive technology the team had at his disposal. Plagued by misfortune and bad weather from the start, the expedition, which resulted in the deaths of legendary climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, was either an exercise in folly or a feat of exemplary courage. The question of whether the pair actually made it to the top remains a matter of controversy, but the chance they had to witness a crimson sun set over the Himalayas, a mountain range that seems to touch the very heavens, might have been worth the tragic consequences.
Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's editor and collaborator for half-a-century, was honored last month, but her equally accomplished British counterpart Anne Coates, who has an esteemed 60-year career under her belt, a prestigious Governor's Award from the Motion Picture Academy, an Oscar for her work on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and nominations for five films including The Elephant Man and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight to her credit, is not as familiar to American movie buffs. In a sexist industry where women make up a disproportionately small percentage of film editors, Coates has been gainfully employed and is still in gear: her last project was 50 Shades of Grey. Now 91, she also has a ream of inside stories to tell, some of which she'll share in an onstage interview with author/film historian and fellow Brit David Thomson, Feb. 21.
Plays the Vogue Theater, Feb. 16-23. Info: mostlybritish.org.