British female directors have produced wonderfully diverse and dynamic cinema over the last few decades, their talents responsible for some of the UK’s finest films including Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant.
In our look at the best British female directors since 1990, we check out the contribution to cinema of some of the UK’s finest contemporary filmmakers. As the examples here showcase, some of Britain’s most enduring, unique and powerful films have been made by women, including both mainstream commercial successes and independent art house releases.
10. The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)
Credit to director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan for having the courage to bring this story to the screen in a way that is both interesting and moving. Of course, it doesn’t entirely work. The focus on the “Iron Lady” doing battle in a man’s world is a fascinating, relevant and important part of this infamous figure’s life, but it somewhat belittles her political and social legacy – for better and for poorer – that is still felt today.
Lloyd and Morgan favour two clear themes. The first is the impact of old age in conjunction with the debilitating influence of dementia. In present day, we see Thatcher requiring the help of others, impinged by forgetfulness yet gaining solace from the vision of her dead husband Denis who acts as the springboard to reminiscences of her youth and time in office. The second key theme is how a woman rose to the most powerful position in Great Britain despite the dominance of her snobbish male peers and their unhealthy distrust of women in power.
Plaudits must be given for staging the film in this way. Thatcher’s struggles in old age bring a tangible relevance between the audience and this once very powerful figure. It also makes for a more interesting way of looking back, the retrospective story hinging on her amusing conversations with the ghost of her dead husband. Domesticity and the ordinary concerns of everyday life populate these moments and make for an unassuming precursor to the limelight of public life.
9. Bhaji On The Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1993)
Gurinder Chadha’s film about a group of south Asian women on a trip to the English seaside town of Blackpool brings to the fore the director’s personal grapples with identity as a woman of Asian heritage growing up and living in Britain, shared by screenwriter Meera Syal’s own preoccupation with the same theme. Bhaji on the Beach follows mostly Punjabi women of very differing ages, some trying to uphold the values of their ancestry, others, particularly the younger generation, against seemingly archaic tradition in contemporary British society. Chadha’s film is best when it turns to the humour and pathos found in the cultural disconnect between the older immigrants and their UK-born children. This isn’t surprising given writer Syal’s success with her mid-1980s sitcom Tandoori Nights and later, as co-writer and actor, Goodness Gracious Me for the BBC. Similarly, Chadha would later enjoy critical and commercial success with films such as Bend It Like Beckham and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.
8. The Violators (Helen Walsh, 2015)
The Violators is uncomfortable viewing. Novelist Helen Walsh’s striking film debut as director is a visceral portrait of a post-industrial landscape corroded by urban putrescence and a complete, suffocating loss of hope. With a backdrop of male grooming, domestic violence and rape, Walsh bludgeons her audience. We experience this through the eyes of a teenage protagonist whose imperturbable exterior masks years of pain; a steely defence mechanism protecting a vulnerable soft centre.
7. Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)
Orlando isn’t Tilda Swinton’s only appearance on this list of best films by British female directors and that’s not surprising. Sally Porter’s 1992 effort is one of a diverse and eclectic mix of films from female filmmakers on this top 10 that each boast bold ideas, wit and aesthetic quirks that coincidentally compare neatly to Swinton’s career as an actress boasting compelling screen presence in works often outside the mainstream. Orlando is a retelling of the supposedly unfilmable Virginia Woolf book Orlando: A Biography, first published in 1928, which finds contemporary spark through its centuries-spanning themes of identity, sex, love and self-fulfilment. Through Potter’s stylised eye and Swinton’s engaging invention, the film delights the head and the heart.
6. Dreams Of A Life & The Falling (Carol Morley, 2011 & 2015)
Dreams of the Life, a drama-documentary, is a sobering experience under the eye of director Carol Morley who retraces the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, a Londoner, who was found dead in her flat in 2006. She’d been there for almost three years, her body surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents and her TV still switched on. She was only found when the council repossessed her flat due to rent arrears but her skeletal remains made it impossible to determine a cause of death. What’s more saddening is the fact this woman had seemingly been forgotten by friends and family, including four sisters who did not know of her death and wanted nothing to do with the film.
Dreams of a Life is interesting in how it examines memories (depicted through interviews with those who knew Joyce), celebrating the purpose and meaning of life through the recollections of those that interacted with this one in particular. It also raises important questions about such things as the welfare state and the society that seemed to let her down.
The Falling, another captivating film from Morley, has understandably divided audiences (its plot diluted in favour of an unnerving, ambiguous mood). It is nevertheless a captivating mystery with elements of pubescent coming-of-age drama bottled up in a maddening horror show featuring enigmatic mass fainting and teenage rebellion. Not as finely-tuned as the writer-director’s Dreams of a Life but far more dynamic, the film’s melodramatic conclusion may be considered trite in comparison to the sedately paced and defiantly vague drama leading up to it but offers some defining lines to satisfy our thirst for closure. If you watch it thinking it’s a school from Summerisle before Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie gets there in The Wicker Man, it’s far more fun. And sixteen-year-old star Maisie Williams, better known for her appearances in Game of Thrones, is excellent.
5. Beautiful Thing (Hettie Macdonald, 1996)
Hettie Macdonald is perhaps best known for directing the critically acclaimed Doctor Who episode Blink, considered by many as the best single episode of the sci-fi series since its revival in 2005. But turn you minds back a decade when she made Beautiful Thing, a film produced by Channel 4 Films (later to become Film Four before the organisation’s reincorporation with Channel 4 in 2002) as part of its self-styled remit to deliver challenging, niche independent cinema that was decidedly outside the mainstream in aesthetic, theme and, at times, narrative approach.
Macdonald’s film, which was surprisingly well-received outside the UK, actually takes a rather conventional approach to teenage romance and sexual discovery, differentiating itself by virtue of its lovers being both male. Yet, then and now, its themes of sexual repression, identity, and anxieties about coming out are potent and relevant. That Macdonald frames this story around dysfunctional families littered with an assortment of unique characters with recognisable frailties and fears helps Beautiful Thing elevate itself beyond social comment into something that surprises, moves and amuses.
4. Prevenge (Alice Lowe, 2016)
Taking just 11 days to shoot, Alice Lowe’s directorial debut is a feat of efficiency and technique. Across a breezy ninety minutes, Lowe’s comically absurdist tendencies splatter a stylised stage influenced by the likes of Argento, Lynch and her good pal Ben Wheatley whose film Sightseers she co-wrote and starred in.
Filmed during Lowe’s real life pregnancy, Prevenge gives new meaning to the term prepartum anxiety. It’s a quirky celebration of mother-child bonds steeped in pitch black comic irony. Lowe’s humour is the standout factor, her delivery suited to a script brimming with sarcasm and wit, but as a director she also concocts moments of genuinely chilling suspense.
Prevenge is delightfully subversive, both in narrative construction and thematic sensibilities, reversing the classic revenge motif to appear as both revelation and twist, and turning a pregnant woman’s life-giving biology into a purveyor of death.
3. The Arbor & The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2010 & 2013)
Clio Barnard’s fascinating drama-documentary The Arbor brings to caustic reality the tragedy of playwright Andrea Dunbar, both in life and after it through her children, her family and those that knew her. The debut film of Barnard, who would later write and direct The Selfish Giant, is a story of social alienation and familial dysfunction brought to the screen through a unique combination of audio recordings with real life participants lip-synched by actors, theatrical performance, and archival footage.
Essentially the story of two tragic lives, the film charts Andrea Dunbar’s short life (she died aged 29) through her children and closest relatives’ recollections. It also looks at the similarly difficult plight of her daughter, Lorraine, the eldest of Andrea’s three children and the product of Andrea’s relationship with a Pakistani man, who suffered a crisis of identity, casual racism, and a turbulent, distant and destructive home life with her alcoholic mother.
If it all sounds like a bleak tale about a bleak Bradford neighbourhood, in many respects, it’s because it is. But it’s also a measured and expertly constructed celebration of a talented, creative young woman. As a playwright, Andrea Dunbar was given an outlet for her very real heartache, her anger and her anguish. Her plays, as well as her feature film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, spoke about class division in late 1970s and 1980s Britain; the changing social plain, ethnic diversity, the breakdown of the family unit. It was current, it cut to the bone. That Lorraine was born in the middle of this cultural and personal flux speaks volumes of her mother’s inner conflict as well reasoning, somewhat, her own downward spiral into drug addiction and prostitution.
The Selfish Giant
Barnard’s striking drama The Selfish Giant about two pre-teens who find solace from boredom by “scrapping” for a local dealer followed her startling 2010 drama-documentary The Arbor. Both films take place in Bradford, West Yorkshire, each drawing on similar themes of familial upheaval, identity, self-fulfilment, and growing up amidst rundown council estates and destitution. Unlike The Arbor, The Selfish Giant is a piece of fiction but maintains the same sense of purpose that distinguished Barnard’s earlier work. Both films share the personal battles of their real or imagined characters, conceived around extinguishing childhood naivety as immature, fragile, inexperienced minds are thrust into an imperfect adult world and its multi-faceted challenges and obstacles. The Selfish Giant also boasts one of our top 10 performances by a child actor as debutant Connor Chapman brings a raw, unscripted energy to his performance.
2. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Ostensibly a domestic “sink estate” drama, what’s most surprising about Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is the corrosive emotional intensity she draws out of her teenage protagonist’s various personal dilemmas. Intimately framed in the Academy ratio, the director herself has talked about the squarer format’s inherent ability to draw the audience into personal conflict and character. It’s an approach that underlines her focus, the camera never leaving actor Katie Jarvis’ side, her role as isolated teen Mia Williams laid bare warts and all.
Arnold’s approach is to maintain our attention on Mia throughout. We therefore see the world as she sees it; angry and disenfranchised, at once desperate for escape but internalised by an acceptance of her lot in life. It culminates in a brilliant final third. Arnold showcases an ability to tie the strands of Mia’s story together through a genuinely gripping finale that remains faithful to the grit and grime of the teenager’s environment while underlining her enigmatic impulses that highlight both youthful recklessness and intelligence beyond her years.
1. Ratcatcher & We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 1999 & 2011)
Ratcacher is a bleak, troubling depiction of a Glaswegian pre-teen in the early 1970s. Following the death of a boy whose fatal drowning he unwittingly caused, James lives out his days dreaming of escaping a drab council flat existence for a new public-funded development away from the claustrophobic inner-city concrete jungle he’s grown up in.
Lynne Ramsay’s film, which prefers minimalist plotting and suggestive images, enjoys an almost silent film aesthetic which proves hugely immersive as our attention centres on a child of few words. Ratcatcher’s focus on a young boy’s difficult life in slum-like surroundings is framed by a public sector strike which sees bin bags and waste lining the streets. Ramsay is ruthless in her approach, her hints of optimism blunted by subtle, provocative diversions into fantasy. She serves a moving and unsettling montage of adolescence that suggests childhood innocence is not necessarily lost to circumstance if it doesn’t exist in the first place.
We Need To Talk About Kevin
I felt like the one being bullied in Ramsay’s provocative We Need To Talk About Kevin about one mother’s turmoil in the aftermath of her son’s high school killing spree. There’s an emotional ferocity to the way the writer-director nightmarishly portrays Tilda Swinton’s hollowed out response to the destructiveness of her offspring, the director mixing tenses to disorientating effect. We Need To Talk About Kevin’s unique power is its ability to bully the viewer just as the protagonist must endure her tormentors. It is unforgivably hard to watch but its inherent sadness is its greatest power as the undercurrent of anger and remorse bubbles almost noiselessly in every scene.
Over to you: what are your fave films by British female directors?