The best of British cinema

Jenny Seagrove, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips, Kelly Preston and Sally Phillips (lefty to right) in Off The Rails. Image: film still/British Film Festival.

The program for the 9th British Film Festival is a shortlist of the best films, past and present, to come out of Britain. Rita Bratovich spoke with founder and program director Kim Petalas to get an overview. 

It’s been a long year for the British Film Festival’s founder and program director Kim Petalas. The festival, originally slated for October, was pushed back to November so audiences could attend live in a cinema. A movie theatre is the only way to appreciate the full production values and share the emotion, laughter, shock and thrills of this year’s selection.

“I love British cinema and I’m very, very passionate about cinema, especially in my role with Palace and being the programming director,” says Petalas, who instigated the British Film Festival nine years ago. “It was an idea that I came up with and I was totally surprised as to how popular it has become. [It is] one of the key festivals in the Palace line-up.”

He loves putting the program together each year, not least because he gets to discover new filmmaking and new talent. 

Daniel Lamont (left) and James Norton in Nowhere Special. Image: film still/British Film Festival.

“I think for a festival you do need your two or three tent pole films to really capture the imagination of patrons, but I think the most exciting thing about a festival is discovering those hidden gems – and I think that this festival is full of those little gems,” explains Petalas. 

That said, the big names are definitely here: Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent, to mention only a few. Petalas singles out Off The Rails as one of his favourite films of the festival. It stars Judi Dench as well as Kelly Preston in her final role. The plot revolves around three close friends and the daughter of a fourth friend who has just died. They embark on a bucket list road trip that takes them across iconic European landscapes, into challenging emotional territory and to the edge of their comfort zones, all set against a sassy punk soundtrack supplied by Blondie.

But it’s the smaller billed films that really excite Petalas. 

“I think Nowhere Special is a wonderful film. Falling For Figaro is a very, very charming Australian/British production. It does have Joanna Lumley in a role,” says Petalas, acknowledging the star power, “but it’s a really entertaining film.”

Ali And Ava is another beautiful, low budget film about an unlikely relationship between an older woman who’s having issues with her progeny and her younger British-Pakistani landlord. 

Stanley Kubrick’s provocative classic A Clockwork Orange leads the retrospective. Image: film still/British Film Festival.

There are four documentaries in this year’s festival, all quite disparate. Eric Clapton: Lockdown Sessions features Clapton and his band performing a very intimate concert in a country manor house. My Father And Me has documentary filmmaker, Nick Broomfield turning the lens inward in a tender tribute to his father Maurice, a factory worker turned industrial photographer. Sparkling: The Story of Champagne explores the myth, history and everlasting allure of this illustrious beverage and asks the unexpected question: Did the English actually invent champagne? It’s intoxicatingly narrated by Stephen Fry. 

“And the other one I really enjoyed personally was Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story,” says Petalas. “There’s a lot of Joan Collins in it and the success of Jackie Collins from the UK to the US and writing those incredibly successful novels. I found that really entertaining.”

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The seven films that make up the retrospective this year represent the quality filmmaking and gutsy risk taking that epitomised the British film industry in the 1970s. Two are Stanley Kubrick masterpieces: the gorgeous, sensual historical drama, Barry Lyndon; and the seminal dystopian classic, A Clockwork Orange.

“I was desperate to get A Clockwork Orange because I knew it was going to be remastered in 4K, so that was the tent pole film,” says Petalas. “So then I had to base everything around that. And also, it’s its 50th anniversary this year.”

Timeless favourite, The Railway Children;  the surly and rebellious Quadrophenia; and brilliant and exquisite The Go-Between give breadth to the retrospective selection. 

“And then Sunday, Bloody, Sunday and Straw Dogs, again 50th anniversary screenings. They’re both wonderful films that broke censorship barriers back in the day. Very controversial films,” says Petalas. 

The pandemic caused a lull in production but there were also many completed films whose release dates were postponed. It means that now there is a backlog of great films. This festival is a mere sampler.

The British Film Festival is on in Sydney from Wednesday, 3 November to Wednesday, 1 December, 2021 at Palace Cinemas. For the full program and to book tickets, visit britishfilmfestival.com.au.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.