This week’s UK release of the critically roasted Blood – a new thriller starring Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham (filmed, incidentally, in my home town) and the significantly more well-received Stone Roses documentary Made of Stone directed by Shane Meadows – who is usually known for his rough and realistic portrayals of working-class misery – prompted me to delve back into the archives of tough, raw British cinema. Meadows’ filmography consists of some fine work, most notably the pitch-black revenge thriller Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and the occasionally brilliant coming-of-age drama This Is England (2006), and Paul Bettany has a history of playing volatile Cockney gangsters (see Gangster No.1 (2000) for his most harrowing depiction of a common man inducted into a life of crime). But these coldly convincing vignettes of blue-collar melancholy – which vary from complex character studies of adolescence to edgy accounts of working class anti-heroes in desperate situations – are by no means a thing of modernity.
On the contrary; this often flawed, but never dull sub-genre of gangsters, gloom and coming-of-age despondency can be traced back to such noir adaptations as Brighton Rock (1947, soullessly retitled ‘Young Scarface’ in the US) and kitchen-sink dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). That said, there was something soft and safe about these early gems – graphic violence is more common nowadays and the advancement of technology in cinematography over the last few decades has allowed the bleakness and austerity of proletarian life illustrated to take on a far more defined tone. Whether this is to its detriment or not is a matter of opinion, but the blinding highs and disorientating lows of films like Trainspotting (1996) would be lost to the black-and-white generation.
So what is it about these uncouth, often exploitive delineations of life in the very gutters of Britain that’s so irresistible? Let’s take Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), the hot-blooded London mob movie that made Guy Ritchie famous. It’s got the essential Brit-grit formula: a slick, cutthroat script, a dingy, murky filter (in this case, sepia), distinctive and slightly crooked characters, candid and intentionally rudimentary cinematography, and a discordant blend of humour and sincerity.
This is the most impressive thing about Brit-grit cinema – it’s so recognisable (despite not strictly being a ‘genre’) and regardless of many of the films following the same conventions, it never feels formulaic. Now, it would be naïve of me to suggest Lock, Stock… is not a similar film to Ritchie’s follow up, Snatch (2000), but when you consider that the innovative minds of the British filmmaking crop are responsible for films as wildly different in topic but alarmingly similar in tenor as In Bruges (2008, though set in Belgium starring two Irishmen, is still British and extremely gritty) and Control (2007), the versatility of this loose sub-genre shines through. There is something intuitively discernible in the naturalistic way in which these films are presented and the utilitarian stories that are told. What independent British cinema manages to do that its American cousins cannot always muster is the unity of realism and exhilaration. Movies that are genuinely plausible, yet still completely captivating are rare: there’s nothing as boring as real life. Take Donnie Darko (2001), for example, which balances an abstract rendering of semi-ordinary adolescence with a perplexing supernatural edge. Now let’s imagine how a British director might have gone about making such a film? Might we have seen a deeper examination of the disjointed and delusional psyche of the title character and a more detailed observation of his disconnection from reality and the openly wretched people around him without the supernatural consequences?
There’s something innately appealing about the true-to-life nature of Brit-grit cinema: Shallow Grave (1996) for instance, appears to isolate its characters completely from society yet still retain an atmosphere of complex mystery and uncertainty between them as it leads towards a wonderfully unnerving climax. These films allow us to correspond with a world that could be going on just outside our door; seeing into the same society we’re familiar with, but from a very different social perspective.
It started somewhere in the realms of classic British mystery and was carried along by likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh before being brought right to the mainstream (in a somewhat tougher fashion) by Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie, while fighting away in the indie world with Shane Meadows. It’s grimy, messy and very hit-and-miss. But, nonetheless, it’s important to the world of cinema; while we all enjoy Hollywood’s dizzying heights, it’s nice to have an escape that’s a little closer to home, a little more… grounded.