New British Cinema

2 November 2005

Mirrormask (David McKean, UK/USA, 2005) Odeon West End, 30 Oct, 16:00 

How many times have we been told of the death of British cinema?  "The British are coming," was the cry of David Putnam with Chariots of Fire and the  Goldcrest studio and look how  that ended- in bankruptcy.  Then Putnam fled from his job as head of Columbia Studios. 

We don't have a British cinema, apparently. Truffaut himself remarked on this lack- ironic given his lionisation of Hitchcock, a Brit working within the American studio system.  So how can the LFF, up and running for nearly 50 years, consistently show a dazzling selection of cinematic talent hailing from these shores?  How is this possible?  Perhaps it is inspite of the invidious and perhaps silly comparisons with Hollywood.

I went down to the West End to see a  film called Mirrormask, the first feature of acclaimed comic strip artist David McKean, a rites of passage fable trumpeted as being up there with Time Bandits and The Company Of Wolves. An unstarry British offering ably helmed by Gina Mckee (Our Friends in the North).

I admit my expectations were not high; ten or so years ago I co-authored a book on British Cinema:  Talking Pictures: Interviews with Contemporary British Filmmakers.  Where are those names now? Not filling the Gala slot at the LFF this year, anyway.  It is so tough to have a career as a film maker/director, or craftsman or technician in this country. How do you get started?  Well, you work as a runner and they pay you peanuts. That is, if they pay you at all. You shmooze and you ingratiate and you make films anyhow, any which way...beg borrow or steal- just to get  your beloved vision on the screen.
Trouble with this is that on say £8k (which is what I was offered when I approached a commercials producer in Soho for work after I graduated) you can't very well live in London, so you have to have kindly,at the very least, rich,at best, relations who will sub you as you work towards this oeuvre.

How do they do it, the ones who do come through?  Mirrormask is the work of a comic strip artist, someone who has been succesful in one field already, and there can be no doubt that it is a visually remarkable computer generated imagery-dominated fantastical allegory.  It pretty much pulls off what it sets out to do in terms of sheer charm and wit; an odyssey through a bizarre landscape which is compelling and wonderful. In terms of sheer ambition, using the most powerful post production software available today, this film is extraordinary.  It put me in mind of the very best children's illustrator, Maurice Sendak. There are nods to Cocteau and Orpheus as Helena, the protagonist, travels through the underworld to find the MirrorMask.

To say the end result was classy is an understatement. It is a fantastic piece of work.  And its British status?  Helmed by a British director, but apparently financed by Sony Pictures International, not a particularly British outfit.  As so often is the case with films made and using British talent but financed by international corporations, the money leaves the country and the idea of a particularly British cinema dies another small death. Certainly in Lord of the Rings territory, MirrorMask is the kind of undertaking  that needs international finance and deserves an international audience.  Now something say like Trainspotting you could say was a genuine Brit flick, made and marketed at a British audience (do you remember the buzz seeing the huge images of a drug f****ed Ewan McGregor drenched in sweat going cold turkey on Billboards thoughout London? The buzz was palpable and I am not sure that they can do the same for Mirrormask.)  It is a family film and yes movies like that can hit the collective psyche- Four Weddings And A Funeral, for example which was such a smash and really put Working Title on the map.  

Some how to me Mirrormask had the feel of something made by the Children's Film Foundation, the actual narrative was unbelievably flimsy, the most spurious of excuses to get the protagonist in the Underworld and into the fantasy where the film really succeeds.  Visually so, so sophisticated, possibly to the point of being a classic, but actually narratively so, so basic I wanted to scream!

Yes the story was functional but the brain that put such a cornucopia of visual effects and witty asides together that carried the audience along so wonderfully surely could have done something a bit less classical  and more challenging than the quintessential alienated child and their tranisition to adulthood.  Cinematically the piece did nothing new as far as I could see.  I suppose making the central protagonist female is mildly feminist and there was quite a lot of Lacanian play with this aspect, but somehow the film just didn't have an edge  that would make it a thoroughly superb piece of work rather than merely outstanding.  As someone who has seen alot of the best international cinema I am not easily pleased and for me this movie really lacked an edge or a real sense of danger when Helena was in the Underworld.  Simple pyrotechnics are not enough, we all know computers can do anything nowadays.

However I wish this film well because the team who put it together are clearly extremely talented and may hit the spot if they grasp the psychosexual nettle a little more firmly next time, and I am pretty sure that with  the immense polish and promise of Mirrormask there will be a next time.  A beautiful piece of work from a compelling festival.  Roll on next year's selection.

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