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What Europe really thinks of British cinema

BY Melissa Chemam

18th Oct 2022 Film & TV

What Europe really thinks of British cinema

As France hosts its famous British Film Festival, we wonder whether the UK’s cinematography still has a place on the European continent

British flags were floating all over the maritime city of Dinard, in Brittany, as the city celebrated the British Film Festival's 33rd edition in early October.

“I love this very special atmosphere of British films,” says a viewer. “They have this gentlemanly aspect, this scathing humour and wit.”

Every year, this part of France celebrates creativity from the UK, but 2022 is a little special. After the years of lockdown, Brexit, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the failure of the mini-budget, European love for old Blighty seems at its lowest.

"It tends to tell braver stories than Hollywood, asking the big questions of life"

Yet most cinemas were full for films such as Emily, a drama film written and directed by Frances O'Connor. Inspired by the brief life of English writer Emily Brontë, the Wuthering Heights author is portrayed by Sex Education star Emma Mackey. Emily won three prizes at the Dinard BFF.

For José Garcia, a well-known French comedian and this year’s president of the jury, what makes British cinema one of his favourites is “the work of English actors”. 

“They have incredible finesse and the originality to try things that the French don’t allow themselves,” he told the press. “Watching them perform, whether it’s Emma Thompson, young Emma Mackey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Farrell or Brendan Gleeson, it reminds me of what triggered my vocation.”

He also values the way English films have this “exquisite way of getting out of the most serious situations by thumbing their nose”.

What British cinema gets right in Europe

So what is it exactly that European viewers value in British films? For Teddy Devisme, cinema critic and author of a book on British cinema, Nouvelles Voix du Cinéma Social Britannique, it’s quality and diversity.

“In France, according to me, it’s not known enough, but from the School of Brighton in the early 1920s, British filmmakers have invented key editing techniques that have made what cinema is today, like the reverse angles or close ups.

"The brilliance of the actors is also attractive to the public. Yet most French people know only Ken Loach’s films, James Bond, and the famous romantic comedies from Richard Curtis.

"Nowadays, I think British diversity is rescued by its incredible television series, which export really well, from Downton Abbey to Peaky Blinders.”

Beyond France, British cinema is less distributed, appreciated mostly by professionals and cinephiles, especially in Germany and Belgium.

"It tends to tell braver stories than Hollywood, asking the big questions of life"

For Sandra Fassio, a Franco-Greek filmmaker and screenwriter, based in Brussels, “very few British films are released in Belgium compared to France, especially as they need subtitles in both French and Flemish.

"But when they do, the most successful are the ones bringing a different tone, a form of derision, like Mike Leigh did. I personally value the authenticity in acting too, the fact that they cast actors beyond the beautiful faces and stereotypical physics.”

Christine Lehnen is a journalist at the culture desk of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and occasional scriptwriter, who divides her time between Germany and England.

“I personally like British cinema because the quality of the performances is superb,” she says. “Just think of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in Supernova, of David Jones in I, Daniel Blake or Olivia Coleman in The Favourite

"It also tends to tell braver stories than Hollywood, asking the big questions of life. Just think of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and the incredible performance by Emma Thompson.”

What defines British cinema for Europeans?

Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin while filming a movieCredit: Breve Storia del Cinema, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons. Many British filmmakers, like Charlie Chaplin, relocated to Hollywood, which can make British cinema difficult to define

Yet Lehnen wonders whether an average viewer in Germany would tell the difference between a US and a UK production.

“Most viewers would be aware, I believe, that James Bond is British and Iron Man American, but since the two cinematic traditions share a language, they do not stand apart as much as perhaps they’d like to. British television productions, I believe, are more easily recognisable.”

Yael Hirsch is a French cultural journalist and lecturer. She conducted a masterclass with Ken Loach at Dinard BFF a few years ago, and comes every year.

“To me, there are remarkable directors in England, Scotland and Ireland, but I don’t see that Britain has a national cinema,” she says, “not in the sense that French critic Jean-Michel Frodon wrote about cinema and national identity. Brits don’t have that.

"They produced great films, social comedies, or costume films. But Britain looks more like the home of great singular filmmakers, who have little in common, from Loach to Mike Leigh, from the different four nations.

"Then, of course, many of its greatest names have often left for the US, like Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Christopher Nolan, and Ridley Scott. Unlike Ireland, Britain does not reflect clear codes of, for instance, England in a one-dimensional manner, I think.”

How will Brexit affect the UK film industry?

Girl in yellow top sits on floor and looks at painting in Earwig by Lucile HadzihalilovicCredit: Courtesy of Wild Bunch. Earwig, directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, is one British film that has seen some success recently with European audiences

Dominique Green, a former distributor and the artistic director of the Dinard British Film Festival, stressed that a festival like Dinard is of key importance in the post-Brexit and post-COVID context.

“Producers suffer from the increase in costs,” she explained, “while Brexit has started to deprive British productions from European subsidies and distribution opportunities.”

Now is the time to go and reconquer the audience overseas, she thinks. She’s thus particularly interested in understanding what Europeans value in British cinema.

Like Dominic Green, Christine Lehnen worries that British cinema is not as influential as it could be beyond its national borders, because of the political decision to cut ties with mainland Europe. 

“Brexit has already been affecting British cinema,” she feels. “Filmmakers within the UK seem to be turning their glances inwards, away from the world. The horizon appears to be shrinking, and even internal social injustices or human rights abuses are no longer as much of a focus as I think they once were.

"Like the whole of the UK, British cinema may be running the risk of provincialisation, turning inwards and backwards.” 

"Many in Europe have formed a bitterness against British culture"

From Poland, film curator and artist director at the Horizon Festival, Ewa Szablowska reflects these ideas.

She explains: “We cover the whole world in our festival, and the most attractive films to our audiences these days are from Asia, Latin America, then Europe, with first French, German, then Central European films. Among the general public and mainstream multiplexes, American cinema dominates however.”

Overall, the Polish and Central European audiences are not very often exposed to British films. “The main British film we’ve put emphasis on recently was Earwig, by Lucile Hadzihalilovic.”

In Greece, Italy, Spain and smaller European countries, British films are indeed also much less shown than in France. It’s particularly among professionals and critics that they remain the most appreciated.

As Hannah Starman, a Slovene-French journalist based in Switzerland, puts it: “Brexit signaled the end of British exceptionalism. I studied and lived in England, it made me very sad. I absolutely value the talent of British acting and writing.

"If it hasn’t changed my feelings, it’s obvious that many in Europe have formed a bitterness against British culture. I just hope it won’t last.”

Banner image credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures. Daniel Craig plays James Bond in No Time To Die

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