The late Bob Hoskins finds an ideal for in Judi Dench for this slight but amusing BBC drama, which takes the war-time action of the Windmill strip-club in London’s Soho as its subject. Stephen Fears has made entrepreneurial duos something of a speciality in films like My Beautiful Launderette, and Mrs Henderson lovingly recreates the milieu in which Vivian Van Damm and Laura Henderson kept their club open despite the bombs falling outside. Popular singer Will Young croons a couple of vintage songs including The Girl In The Little Green Hat, and Christopher Guest has a neat turn as Lord Cromer. Frears handles the nudity with taste; the aim is nostalgia rather than exploitation, and Mrs Henderson is about as genteel a film about stripping as might be imaginable.
Serial killer films are not a new invention; the story of John Christie is one of Britain’s most notorious examples. Adapting Ludovic Kennedy’s book on the subject, Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer adapts a deliberately drab, procedural style that finds an ideal centre in Richard Attenborough’s performance as Christie. Killing again and again for sexual kicks, it’s a turn highly untypical of Attenborough’s usual work, but he rises to the challenge, making Christie a fascinating but repellent character. John Hurt and Judy Geeson do good work as the husband and wife who unwittingly stay at Christie’s property, and a hanging scene, supervised by real-life executioner Albert Pierrepoint, adds to the gloomy sense of authenticity.
Horror in British cinema has a classy past; this influential portmanteau film from Ealing studios glides by like a Rolls Royce. Part of the charm is the directness; Dead of Night doesn’t use pop culture references or homage to other directors; the stories are raw, simple and effective. While the ghostly golfing tale is really just light relief, the opener, about a racing driver who has a premonition of his own death, is striking and shocking in all the right ways. Based on a 1906 short story by EF Benson, it sets the mood nicely for Alberto Cavalcanti’s chilling Christmas party and Robert Hamer’s haunted mirror, both of which have a strange poetry of their own. And if Cavalcanti’s final sequence is the most iconic, with Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist who loses a battle of wits with his dummy, the wraparound story ties the whole package together perfectly, adding a strand of philosophical horror that pulls the meta-narrative together in a highly original way.
Writer and director Clio Barnard’s modern day fable is a stark depiction of a working class childhood in Britain’s West Yorkshire, with Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) taking on the boy’s exploits lead to a shocking end. Following up on her similarly bleak The Arbor, Barnard makes something magical but also depressing from her Bradford setting, coaxing dangerous and illegal work harvesting scrap metal and wire for an unscrupulous dealer. This set up can only lead to tragedy, and The Selfish Giant offers a powerful punch when naturalistic performances from the boys, but also staging notably lyrical set pieces including a horse and cart race that stop the narrative from becoming maudlin. The Selfish Giant takes inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s children’s story, but it’s an involving and disturbing parable in its own right.
Love him or hate him, and the excesses of his later work didn’t appeal to many, Lindsay Anderson was a true auteur long before the French made the term fashionable; his 1963 drama This Sporting Life is a brilliant sports picture, featuring a massive performance by Richard Harris. As rugby league footballer Frank Machin, Harris kicks and punches his way to a living, but his aggression comes at a personal cost via his relationship with Margaret (Rachel Roberts). Anderson has made his name with ‘free cinema’, a well-observed documentary form, and his stack black and white photography adds verisimilitude to Machin’s fall from grace. Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter went on to feature in Anderson’s later films, and This Sporting Life is a milestone in British cinema; terse, downbeat but with a vibrant beating heart in Harris’s towering performance.
A nice piece of casting, by having the 21st century’s most lauded online wit, Stephen Fry, play arguably the most acerbic man in history, Brian Gibson’s BBC film pulls off something of a coup. Based on Richard Ellman’s book, Wilde focuses less of Wilde’s writing career than on the series of personal relationships that cause him considerable torment; as a husband and father, Oscar Wilde finds himself at the sharp end of societal judgement when he embarks on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law). Orlando Bloom pops up as a rent boy, Tom Wilkinson turns up as the Marquess of Queensberry who prosecutes Wilde, and Martin Sheen and Ioan Gruffud add some British spit and polish. And at the centre, Fry gives a strong performance as Wilde, dealing with inner anguish and spitting out bon mots with considerable style.
Adapted from a novel by Maryam Modell by John Mortimer and his wife Penelope, Otto Preminger’s 1965 black and white thriller is a tricky tale of child abduction. Bunny is the child of Ann and Steven Lake (Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea), and when she goes missing, investigating copper Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) comes to wonder if the girl ever existed. Throw in cameos from a diverse collection including Noel Coward and The Zombies) and the result is a melange of strange ingredients, which Preminger manages to weld together with some panache. The solution, very different from the one in the book, makes sense, and the journey to get there is consistently engrossing; if the slightly musty quality of the not particularly-swinging 60’s London can be ignored, Bunny Lake Is Missing is a terse little thriller with lively performances from actors who knew how to steal a scene.