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British film in 2015: a box-office bounce, the grey pound surges and women take the hot seat

  • Surprisingly British: Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster

Surprisingly British: Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster

A roundup of UK Film in 2015 from Ian Haydn Smith

The British film industry had much to celebrate in 2015 – running the gamut from low-budget, critically acclaimed debut features to the UK hosting the shoot of blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The UK’s 2015 box-office admissions were up 17% on 2014, reaching £171.9 million. The domestic total for the year was £1.2bn. Globally, UK-made films – from independent productions to features made in British studios – earned $9.4bn at the global box office.

But the strong year for British film wasn’t just about ticket sales, it was also about Oscars, creative energy, and British filmmakers connecting with global stories.

The year started on a high note with James Marsh's well-received Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything topping the UK’s January box office. Eddie Redmayne won a slew of awards and was named Best Actor at February's Oscars.

February also saw the phenomenal success of British director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Fifty Shades of Grey, a racy Valentine’s Day release. The film overtook Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street as the most successful 18-certificate film of all time at the UK box office.

Elsewhere, the significantly more child-friendly Shaun the Sheep Movie held its own against Disney's Big Hero Six. Along with Paddington, which was still performing well at the box office three months after its release (the film became the biggest independent UK film globally, accruing $112 million), Aardman Animations’ feature-length adventure once again highlighted the versatility, creativity and commercial strength of British animation.

Everybody's favourite globetrotting pensioners returned in March, with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel holding first place at the top of the UK box office for three weeks. Directed again by John Madden, the film, with a production budget of $10 million, went on to earn $86 million globally, $23 million of which came from the UK. Its success reinforced the importance of film productions that appeal to an older audience, and the UK as a major player in delivering such prestige titles globally. And, as with the first instalment, a stellar cast that included Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, was always going to help. Smith also had success with a role she made her own on the West End stage, playing Miss Shepherd, the woman who lived in a van in Alan Bennett's driveway, in November release The Lady in the Van. Nicholas Hytner's adaptation of his own directed stage play – his third stage-to-film collaboration with Bennett after The Madness of King George (1995) and The History Boys (2006) – earned $19 million at the UK box office and a global total of $41 million.

The 'grey pound' also helped push two modestly-budgeted Helen Mirren dramas to significant success at the box office. The One Hundred Foot Journey and Woman in Gold brought in $89 million and $61 million, respectively, globally.

Another favourite actor with older audiences, Charlotte Rampling, turned in a spellbinding performance in Andrew Haigh's powerful 45 Years. The film's journey began with Rampling and co-star Tom Courtenay winning the Best Actress and Best Actor prizes at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2015; she was later nominated for an Oscar. The chamber drama earned $2.6 million in the UK and was notably a huge success for Curzon’s VOD platform in addition to performing well in cinemas.

The clout of female stars and the heavily publicised presence of a strong female creative team, headed by director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan, along with the starry gala opening night at the BFI London Film Festival, contributed to the success of Suffragette, which opened in October. The film earned half of its $32 million box office in the UK.

Carol Morley's The Falling also featured a mostly female cast and crew. A more daring enterprise, as reflected in its smaller budget and box-office takings, Morley's drama cemented her reputation as a filmmaker with a unique vision and powerful voice.

The Falling starred impressive newcomer Florence Pugh and Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams, as well as Greta Scacchi, Monica Dolan and Maxine Peake. Williams' role in the hugely popular TV series might have accounted for a significant amount of the publicity surrounding the film. As with previous years, HBO's ongoing adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy epic continues to offer employment to what sometimes appears to be the entire acting population of the UK – including the likes of Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Gwendoline Christie, Natalie Dormer, Hannah Murray and Iwan Rheon. The series continues to highlight the benefits of a reliable tax incentive initiative, with ancillary industries, from construction and transport to hotel and catering, benefiting as much from the expansive production as the film industry itself.

On the documentary scene, a film about Amy Winehouse was always going to attract as much interest as it did controversy. Contrary to the claims of some members of Winehouse’s family, Asif Kapadia's moving documentary was evenly balanced and acclaimed from its Cannes debut through to its Oscar win. Its domestic haul of $5.7 million made it the highest-grossing British documentary and the fourth most successful documentary at the UK box office.

By contrast, Danny Boyle's kinetic biopic Jobs, an account of three pressurised moments in the life of Apple mastermind Steve Jobs, adapted from Walter Isaacson's bestselling biography by The Social Network (2010) scribe Aaron Sorkin, failed to attract a sizeable audience anywhere, with the UK box office registering a paltry $3.3 million.

British novelist-turned-director/screenwriter Alex Garland fared better with his low-key sci-fi thriller Ex Machina. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards (and won for visual effects), five BAFTAs and dominated the British Independent Film Awards with three wins. The film took over double its production budget of $15 million at the global box office, with $3.8 million coming from the UK.

The most successful independent UK film at the 2015 UK box office was Tom Hardy’s double-role-stunner Legend, from Working Title and StudioCanal. Telling the story of the criminal Krays brothers’ rise and fall in 1960s London, the film earned $27.9 million. That figure fell just short of UK studio-backed productions The Theory of Everything's $31.9 million and The Martian's $33.9 million.

However, as with Skyfall in 2012, all of the year's UK-related productions paled in comparison with the $135.5 million haul of Spectre. It may have fallen $26 million short of the previous Bond outing's record-breaking success, but it helped buoy 2015's strong year. And with the shoots of three of the five top UK films (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Spectre and Avengers: Age of Ultron) taking place at Pinewood and Shepperton, alongside one of the densest concentrations of visual effects and post-production houses, the UK remains amongst the premier filming centres in the world.

Auteur voices were also heard. National treasure Terence Davis returned with Sunset Song, a moving adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Scotland-set novel. No less measured than his previous work, the increasingly prolific director (his Emily Dickinson drama A Quiet Passion premiered at 2016’s Berlin Film Festival) elicited a strong central performance from model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn.

Other strong independent voices included Peter Strickland with his S&M themed Duke of Burgundy, proving that European style is alive and well in UK Film.

As for two of the strongest voices in experimental film, Andrew Kötting's By Our Selves featured Toby Jones as poet John Clare and retraced both his journey by foot from Epping Forrest to Northamptonshire and his gradual mental disintegration, while Ben Rivers' The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers offers up an elliptical adaptation of Paul Bowles that in itself is a kind of making-of accompaniment to European filmmaker Oliver Laxe's own Morocco-set film.

Rufus Norris followed his award-winning debut film Broken with an ambitious and unusual musical, London Road, adapted from his National Theatre play about a neighbourhood recovering from a serial killer’s crimes.

Amongst rising talents, acclaimed playwright and director Debbie Tucker Green’s feature debut The Second Coming featured Idris Elba; John Maclean’s Sundance selection Slow West offered a different take on the Western starring Michael Fassbender; and Stephen Fingleton made a buzzy debut with his post-apocalyptic The Survivalist.

No less urgent was Dreamcatcher, veteran Kim Longinotto’s emotional portrait of a group of ex-prostitutes attempting to help young girls on the streets of Chicago. Over the course of 30 years, veteran British documentarian Longinotto has shone a light on the plight of women and focussed on gender issues around the world and remains one of our finest filmmakers. Another hot British doc for 2015 was A Syrian Love Story, directed by Sean McAllister.

Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary is being celebrated in 2016, but even in 2015 the Bard’s enduring appeal was evident in two wildly different feature films, Justin Kurzel’s visceral Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and the much sillier Bill, a family comedy from the Horrible Histories team.

Also, Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie returned with two crowd pleasers, Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

With all these examples and more, the old precepts of what constitute British film have changed. One can hardly look at 2015 and state that Britain on either the large or small screen is solely represented by costume romances and kitchen-sink dramas. (Although we remain singularly good at both.) There is – and has been for some time – so much more to British cinema, as there has to British culture. And with both gender and cultural representations at the heart of so many filmmakers' visions, change will continue to expand this horizon. The industry as a whole has some way to go in ensuring that voices from all walks of British life are heard – and seen – on the screen.

The other key aspect that challenges what constitutes British film is the nature of financing, both for blockbusters and more modest, but no less ambitious projects. Take, for instance, two films released within a fortnight of each other in the UK. Operating at extreme ends of a wide cinematic spectrum are Spectre and The Lobster. The 24th Bond film – the fourth to feature Daniel Craig as the spy and second with Sam Mendes as director – is a juggernaut production whose cultural history defines it as British (and producers Eon are based in London). However, it is bankrolled by two American studios and the crew working on the film are the cream of the global film industry, while the locations span the globe, as well being based at Pinewood Studios.

The Lobster was a joint production between the UK, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and France. It was directed by the London-based Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and shot in Ireland. Yet at both the BAFTA and British Independent Film Awards there was little question as to its identity, being nominated as both an Outstanding British Film and as a Best British Independent Film.

What films like Spectre and The Lobster show, alongside other 2015 UK-US productions such as Brooklyn, Everest, Carol, Far From the Madding Crowd, Mr. Holmes, Testament of Youth and The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, is that the UK remains a creatively rich environment, both above and below the line. While the constant flow of blockbuster productions – the Star Wars series in particular looks set to be a permanent fixture here – make the most of the country's studio facilities and ensure a healthy revenue for the industry outside of audiences paying to see their favourite stars and stories on the big screen.