- British Film, and: The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real
Jim Leach's British Cinema is an engaging introduction to and meditation on what the opening chapter describes as a 'complex and "messy" cinema': situated somewhere between Hollywood entertainment and European art cinema, and produced in a country whose multicultural citizenry and distinct national components make defining what is British exceptionally difficult and perhaps unwanted. Neither a history of the British film industry (nothing of its origins, and no films before the 1930s, are discussed), [End Page 450] nor a comprehensive overview of its output, the book opts instead to revisit some key myths about British film and consider some recurring preoccupations of its filmmakers over the years. The study is directed to a general rather than a specialist audience, and the style of the book is well suited to its aims. Leach adopts what can best be described as a patient tone - clear, careful, and non-condescending - as he introduces key concepts (Louis Althusser's theory of ideology, for example) that are necessary for understanding either the films or the critical debates around them. He lucidly summarizes critical responses to the films he discusses, rarely offering much comment on them. This objective tone does at times contrast oddly with the idiosyncratic approaches of the second half of the book, but on the whole it works admirably to present a nuanced introduction to an underrated national cinema.
The early chapters look at three major developments of the 1930s that would dominate the production of the industry: the genre films of Alfred Hitchcock, the 'prestige films' of Alexander Korda, and the documentaries of John Grierson and the Empire Marketing Board. Grierson is generally held responsible for the strain of social realism that has been celebrated in British film. The chapter addressing this tradition assesses the realism in Brief Encounter; the reaction against realism in the influential British film journal Screen; the films of the British New Wave; Ken Loach and Mike Leigh; and finally more recent social realist films by Gary Oldman (Nil by Mouth) and Tim Roth (The War Zone). The chapter on the expressionist tradition that follows from Korda starts by contrasting the films of Pressburger and Powell, and those of the Gainsborough studios; moves on to Nicholas Roeg, John Boorman, and Ken Russell; and concludes with an insightful comparison of Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway.
The structure of these chapters is representative of the ones that will follow, which address diverse themes such as crime and horror, the public school movie, heritage cinema, and comedy. After a brief introduction, which often serves to situate the discussion in relation to the question of national cinema, representative individual films or pairs of films are discussed, tracing out a historical development of the issue in question. Early and subsequent critical responses to the film are discussed in an admirably even-handed way, and critical controversies are lucidly discussed when necessary. This strategy works effectively through most of the book, bringing out some very interesting historical continuities and ruptures.
A couple of the chapters are a bit odd: the chapter that starts out discussing British actors and acting, looking at the contrasting examples of Diana Dors and Laurence Olivier, turns out to be about the relation between the theatre and cinema. The chapter on 'sex, gender and the national character' starts with the films of the swinging sixties, moves on to the soft-core sex comedies of the 1970s, and ends up with feminist films [End Page 451] of the 1980s and 1990s. It might have been more coherent either to have stuck with mainstream representations of gender and sexuality, or to have looked more squarely at oppositional ones (including gay and lesbian films). On the other hand, it is an interesting context in which to consider feminist filmmaking, and one is grateful for the fact that Leach takes popular genres like soft-core or Carry On comedies seriously.
While Leach does not aim...