The 100 best British films
Time Out counts down the best British films, as chosen by the film industry
By Dave Calhoun, Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins, with Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Adam Lee Davies, Gareth Evans, Paul Fairclough and Wally Hammond. Explore the individual top tens of every contributor.
Dir Bruce Robinson (Richard E Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths)
Enter the arena of the unwell
Arguably, three years ago writer-director Bruce Robinson’s riotous black comedy – describing the misadventures of two recent ex-students/‘resting’ young actors in an unwelcoming north London – would have pipped ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ as the highest, rather than the second-highest-rated British comedy in our poll. At that point, the ‘Withnail & I’ fan club was at its bibulous height, with its ardent admirers, word-perfect in Robinson’s semi-autobiographical script, meeting in Camden pubs to swap quotes and play the DVD-extra drinking games (though, more properly, they should have frequented tea shops, demanding ‘the finest wines available to humanity!’). At auction, Withnail’s ragged Harris check coat went to Chris Evans for £8,000 and the leather worn by Marwood – for he is ‘I’ – was bought by Danny Baker. In 2000, Total Film readers voted it the third best comedy of all time.
That said, ‘Withnail & I’ was no instant success: it managed a paltry three-week run on its opening and, including its 2007 UK Film Council remastered re-release, has only grossed £1.5million in British cinemas. Robinson has said the film’s mid-1980s production for Handmade Films almost made him as penurious as his hero: having to provide £30,000 of his own cash to film Richard E Grant and Paul McGann on their fateful trip in their clapped-out Jaguar MK2 to the Lake District. But if, initially, ‘Withnail & I’ was a cult success, built up on video and DVD viewing, our poll shows it now has a solid place in British viewers’ hearts; its inspirationally funny script, spot-on performances and evocative soundtrack, helping to combine a gloriously mocking elegy for Britain’s supposedly Swingin’ Sixties with a moving, bittersweet distillation of personal memory and of friendship recalled. WH
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Dirs Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr)
The history boys
Two things are well known about Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 epic about the life of an old-fashioned ex-army officer serving in the Home Guard during World War II: Churchill disliked the whole idea of it, and may have thought it was about him, and the Blimp character, over-fed and irascible, was inspired by David Low’s cartoon character of the same name in the Evening Standard.
The reality is that ‘Colonel Blimp’ is a much more wise, surprising and measured film than either of these things suggest. It’s a film about the unknowability of others, the complexity of lives, the power of time on our character and the influence of history on our behaviour. It has the depth and sweep of a novel, while remaining wonderfully cinematic (think of the duel in Berlin, the snappy montage of animal heads on Blimp’s wall, the desolate battle scenes…).
At the time of its release at the height of war, it was also very bold in trying to counter some myths about history and give colour to black-and-white prejudices (not least about Germany and Germans). The trick and power of Powell and Pressburger’s film is that, by first giving us the Blimp we expect – loud, angry, stuck in his ways – and then flashing back and recounting events in his life from 1902 to 1943, including a lifelong friendship with a German officer, a lost love and time spent serving in three wars, they give us an entirely different character: a complex, rounded and sympathetic man. Blimp may not be us,and we may not even like him – but by the end we know and understand him, and that’s the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger’s work. DC
The 39 Steps (1935)
Dir Alfred Hitchcock (Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearle)
Hitch’s highland fling
For this writer, Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s novel is not only his very finest British film – for suspense, pace, wit, vivid characterisation, atmosphere and virtuoso set-pieces it even outdoes the brilliant ‘The Lady Vanishes’ – but the warmest, most affecting movie of his career.
It’s not just that Robert Donat’s Hannay is one of his most sympathetic protagonists (compare him to that other innocent-on-the-run, Cary Grant’s complacent Roger O – ‘for nothing’ – Thornhill in ‘North by Northwest’), nor that Donat and Madeleine Carroll, for all their initial sparring, finally make such a lovely couple. No, the entire film is packed with touching moments, from the affectionate depiction of banter between members of the music hall audience at the film’s beginning to the unexpectedly touching moment of Mr Memory’s death at the Palladium, when his brief dialogue with Hannay deftly suggests the men’s mutual respect. In between, there’s the strangely courageous death of the otherwise absurdly exotic female ‘agent’, the cosy, understanding matrimonial love of the Scottish innkeeper for her more innocent husband, and even the steadfast loyalty shown by the villainous Scottish spymaster’s spouse.
Most heartbreaking of all, however, are the brief but unforgettable scenes at the crofter’s cottage, where Hannay’s talk of London and perfectly sincere compliments afford the young wife (Peggy Ashcroft) a tantalising glimpse of a far happier life than the one she faces with her mean, brutish husband (John Laurie). These few minutes include some of the subtlest acting to be found in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not to mention an emotional depth and delicacy he never again quite managed to attain. GA
Brief Encounter (1945)
Dir David Lean (Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson)
The passionate friends
Few films divide opinion like ‘Brief Encounter’. Many view the film as cold, heartless, too stiff-lipped to be truly moving (check the current Time Out review by Dave Calhoun for evidence). But without wishing to cause offence to my esteemed colleagues, they’re dead wrong. Because for those willing to chip through the ice-shelf, there’s a raging emotional torrent waiting to sweep them away. And it’s not as though Lean is celebrating these characters’ inability to communicate, to break through their social strictures and live real lives. ‘Brief Encounter’ is a tragedy, not just for two mismatched lovers but for an entire class of people, trapped in empty suburban existences ruled by propriety and that desperate, heartbreaking, terribly British desire to remain anonymous, to avoid offence, to blend in. And therein lies the film’s extraordinary power, because despite the miles and the decades which lie between, that’s still us up there on the screen. TH
Dir Mike Leigh (David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Karin Cartlidge)
Big mouth strikes again
From its initial release, it was clear that ‘Naked’, which is Mike Leigh’s highest-ranked film on our chart, was destined to appear on lists like this for years to come. And yet, of all the films in the higher echelons of this list, it might be the most flawed and difficult. There are at least three performances in ‘Naked’ – Katrin Cartlidge as the bruised Sophie, Claire Skinner as shrieking Sandra and Greg Cruttwell as vicious yuppie psycho Jeremy – whose tone threatens to derail the film. And yet, despite these wobbles, ‘Naked’ is a masterpiece and perhaps Leigh’s best film to date, or at least the one which most appeals to his sceptics. Certainly, at the time it marked a departure for Leigh into more mythical, less domestic territory, and in retrospect marked a new maturity in his filmmaking. Set in a seedy, strip-lit London populated almost exclusively by predators and prey, this is the one film in which Leigh drops the idea that life is sweet: his characters are mostly either cruel or pathetic, and drifting above them all – or crawling beneath – is David Thewlis’s Johnny, the derisive observer of everyone else’s flaws who can’t bear to deal with his own. A moustachioed Mancunian angel of death with a mouth like a Salford sewer and a mind teeming with useless information, Thewlis guarantees the film’s central place in our cultural pantheon for another century at least. TH