The second annual Mostly British Film Festival, a co-presentation of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation and the California Film Institute, begins this week. Over the course of seven solid days of programming, a true anglophile may find it difficult to stay away from the lineup for longer than an afternoon matinee. The opening night film, London River, stars Brenda Blethyn, most famous stateside for her Oscar-nominated role in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies (1996). This fine caliber of actors and directors continues throughout the series to the closing night film, where you'll find a Ken Loach movie that, astonishingly, isn't a drama: Looking for Eric (2009).
Among the many other films to choose from are an adaptation of the remarkable novel Disgrace by the Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee; two Australian thrillers starring Anthony La Paglia: Lantana (2001) an impeccably well-acted drama that was overlooked and underrated when it was first released, and Balibo (2009) set in East Timor in 1975, during an era of political upheaval; The Daisy Chain, featuring Samantha Morton, who has created any number of troubled and troubling character studies; and one of this year's Oscar nominees for Animated Feature Film The Secret of Kells.
If, however, you have a limited amount of time or money, then your must-see films should be the Red Riding Trilogy, which originally aired last year as a television series in Britain. Based on four novels by the British author David Peace, the story fictionalizes the journalistic and criminal investigations surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who terrified the inhabitants of the north of England during the 1970s and '80s. This trio of films vividly brings to life a specific era (starting in 1974, and ending in 1983) and place (the north of England, Yorkshire). Most movies reach for this kind of verisimilitude (the unassuming yet authentic costume and set design), this cohesion of purpose (despite the presence of three different directors), but very few approach this production's fluency and intelligence as it covers such dark territory.
In the Mesozoic Era before YouTube, BBC America and DVDs, the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! were the sole outlets for Americans who liked to get their fix of U.K. telly. Remember the disquieting thrill of watching the original Prime Suspect (1992) series with Helen Mirren? Every halfway decent TV mystery or police procedural series since then owes something aesthetically in its approach to characters who must sift through grisly material, including Red Riding.
I loved those Thursday night mysteries and Sunday night dramas, whether they were set in gritty, urban streets, or on posh country estates. Watching them made me feel like I was going through the looking glass; these characters spoke the same language that I did but they were reflected back in odd perspectives, slightly askew, or wrong-sized. Their accents not only changed the sound of familiar words, but altered their meanings as well. Even when the plots dissolved into cliché, every actor fit into the action, in his or her right place. Casting is the genius of British television in general, and of the Red Riding series in particular.
Consider an actress like Cara Seymour. She first registered in my consciousness as one of Christian Bale's victims in American Psycho, but more recently as Carey Mulligan's mother in the sweet, but overly restrained, film An Education. Seymour is one of those actresses who is pitch perfect as a supporting character, an ideal everywoman. Another actress in the series, Rebecca Hall, is not only affecting as a grieving mother, but unrecognizable here from her role as an ingénue in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As in each episode of the trilogy, it is her character -- a woman's -- that forces change or offers redemption to the men in this world. And to describe this part of England as a man's world would be a gross understatement.
As in the actual case, the serial killer's victims are women, and girls. In every episode, the resounding theme is of (female) innocence lost, corrupted by (male) ambition and greed. In this Orwellian world, the government, and the agencies it funds (like the police force), holds authority over the poor and powerless. For every good woman who appears on screen, a cabal of ugliness forms, comprised of men who hold their self-interests above stopping the violent crimes.
When one of those British mysteries I used to watch failed to linger in my mind past Monday morning, it was usually because the plot was too predictable, and therefore, finally, unsatisfying. The Red Riding Trilogy plot is intense, and the tone solemn, but the humans who populate this fictional Yorkshire all have real, combustible emotions: they provide the series with its brilliant and/or terrible light. Unless you've read the books, you won't be able to anticipate the endings. And, even if you have, I guarantee you'll leave the hushed theatre appalled by man's continued capacity to do harm.
The Mostly British Film Festival runs from February 4 through February 11, 2010, at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information, visit voguesf.com and cafilm.org.