In England, the habitually excessive Ken Russell made a name for himself as a purveyor of over-the-top spectacle. Among his works are his adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love in 1969; his sensationalized biography of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers (1970); Tommy (1975), based on the Who’s rock opera of the same name; an outré biography of composer Franz Liszt, aptly titled Lisztomania (1975), with Roger Daltrey of the Who as Liszt; and the science fiction thriller Altered States (1980), which deals with experiments in a sensory deprivation tank that predictably go horribly wrong. In 1991, Russell made the exploitation drama Whore, but it seemed to most observers that he was playing to diminished returns by this point in his career. Queer activist Derek Jarman, who had worked as production designer on Russell’s semi-historical splatter film The Devils DerekJarman’s Edward II (1991), a modern adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play, with surrealist imagery and copious amounts of violence.
voices of the new era, directing such films as Sebastiane (1976), Jubilee (1977), and The Tempest (1979).
The gorgeous biographical film on the painter Caravaggio (1986) was followed by the allegorical War Requiem (1989), with music by Benjamin Britten and a brief appearance by Sir Laurence Olivier as an old soldier, in his final appearance on the screen. The Last of England (1988) gave a surrealistic dark view of declining England under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The sexually graphic and violently inventive Edward II (a k a Queer Edward II, 1991) followed, loosely based on Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play, but by this time Jarman was ill with AIDS and needed the assistance of a “ghost director” to help him get through the shooting. Jar-man’s quiet, meditative study of the philosopher Wittgenstein (1993) was followed by Blue (1994), the director’s final cri-de-coeur, in which the viewer is confronted by nothing more than a blue screen for approximately seventy-nine minutes, as Jarman furiously laments his onrushing death on the film’s chaotic sound track. Glitterbug (1994), a compilation of early Super 8 mm home movies with a suitably shimmering sound track by Brian Eno, was released posthumously.
Ken Loach created a series of rough-and-tumble films about working-class England, the most compelling of which is Riff-Raff (1990). Mike Leigh, always his own master, also chronicled the perils of the class system in the appropriately titled Bleak Moments (1971), High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993), Secrets Lies (1996), and Career Girls (1997) before doing an abrupt about-face and tackling a large-scale historical drama, Top’sy-Turvy (1999), based on the lives of the comic opera masters Gilbert and Sullivan. Despite a multimillion-dollar budget, two Academy Awards, and sustained critical praise, the film failed to click at the box office. Vera Drake (2004) is about a back-alley abortionist in 1950s England; typically, Leigh never condemns his characters but rather concentrates on the social issues around them. In addition to directing, Leigh also writes the scripts for all his movies in concert with his actors, creating the scenario for each in a series of intensive rehearsals before shooting starts. Terence Davies, another master of drab British realism, scored with the semi-autobiographical film Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), then continued his examination of British working-class life with The Long Day Closes (1992). In 2000, he succeeded admirably with an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth.
Channel Four Films, a commercial British broadcasting company, commissioned a large schedule of 16 mm television features in an attempt to jumpstart the moribund English film industry, which had fallen a long way from its glory days of the 1960s as an international commercial force. Rising costs, stricter unionization, and the increasing stranglehold of Hollywood on the international box office combined to bring about a crisis in the industry that only aggressive government subsidies and strategic low-budget production campaigns could hope to counteract.
Many of Channel Four’s modestly budgeted films played as theatrical presentations in other countries, such as Stephen Frears’s comedy My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and increased the visibility of English films abroad. Frears, for one, took this opportunity and ran with it, going on to make some of the most individual films of the period, such as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), and The Queen (2006). Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) was a surprise comedy hit, and Peter Greenaway, after a strong beginning with The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982 and Drowning by Numbers in 1988, confounded critics and audiences alike with his sexually explicit and brutally violent The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).