The 15 Best British Films of The 1990s
British film in the 90’s began much the same way as the 80’s had ended with few opportunities to gain what little funding was available.
To appreciate the films of the decade, the 90’s can be understood as a game of two halves, roughly splitting into grittier more socially conscious films of the early half of the decade and the more colourful and arguably better known (and better funded) films which came in the wake of a certain release in 1994. Here are 15 films charting British cinema in the 1990’s.
15. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
This crime thriller saw writer and director Guy Ritchie shoot to instant recognition. Also co-written by Peter Cattaneo (director of the Full Monty) sees Eddy (Nick Moran) and his friends Bacon (Jason Statham), Tom (Jason Flemyng) and Soap (Dexter Fletcher) rack up a debt of £500,000 in a card game rigged by a local mobster. The friends turn to robbing a neighbouring flat of their marijuana crop – a heist which sees them intertwine with the exploits of various gangsters.
Much hyped on its release, the film received much praise as the best British gangster film since The Long Good Friday in 1979. In many ways, with its memorable criminal characters (ex-footballer Vinnie Jones features) and interwoven plot it can be viewed as a British answer to Pulp Fiction. The film received finance from a string of sources including Handmade Films. Punchy and memorable, the cult film also spawned a spin-off TV series ‘Lock Stock…’ broadcast in the U.K on Channel 4 in 2000.
14. The Crying Game (1992)
Neil Jordan’s film was eventually a hit in the U.S after floundered at the U.K box office. Set amid a backdrop of the Irish troubles, it follows Fergus (Stephen Rea) a member of the IRA who, along with others in his group (played by Miranda Richardson & Adrian Dunbar) kidnap a British soldier Jody. Fergus bonds with Jody and when Jody is accidentally killed, Fergus seeks out the man’s girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson) whom he has promised to protect. Ultimately developing feelings for Dil, a surprise reveal that Dil is transgender tests Fergus’ true nature.
Its opening focusing more on soldiers and plots, the film is not what it initially appears to be, this reversal of expectation (in tune with a key aspect of the story) is perhaps what made it unpopular upon its first release. Very much a film of two halves, Fergus as an IRA member, then adopting a new identity as ‘Jimmy’ the story becomes more relationship focused – with the audience convincingly drawn in along with Fergus.
The ‘reveal’ was something the U.S release in particular played on and today remains ‘the moment’ the film is best remembered for – being referenced in 1994’s Ace Ventura Pet Detective. Despite its troubled time at the box office, the film went on to win several Academy Awards. Not the only film with an Irish flavour to hit the box office in the early 90’s, Alan Parker’s UK/US/IRE co-production The Commitments is also worthy of a mention.
13. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
A U.K/U.S co-production directed by Brit John Madden (who had directed Queen Victoria film Mrs Brown the previous year), written by American Marc Norman and co-scripted by playwright Tom Stoppard.
The fictionalised plot follows William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as he embarks on an affair with Viola de Lessepes (Gwyneth Paltrow) during his writing of the play that will become Romeo and Juliette. A treat for Shakespeare buffs, the film features various lines that will/have been used in many of his plays. Colourful and fun, if not historically accurate, this romantic comedy drama originally went into production in 1991 directed by Edward Zwick and set to start Julia Roberts as Viola.
However, production fell apart before shooting after Daniel Day Lewis didn’t take up the lead role as intended – leading Roberts to pull out. Zwick brought in Stoppard – in the wake of the film of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – persuading Miramax to take up the project but being dropped as director.
Madden’s finished film was re-edited and reworked with some scenes being re-shot following various audience test screenings. The conscious historical inaccuracies in behaviour and fact can be considered as in tune with the anachronisms of Elizabeth released in the same year.
12. The Remains of the Day (1993)
This Merchant-Ivory production was originally to have been directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Harold Pinter. Based on the novel of the same name, the film follows Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) the former butler to recently deceased Lord Darlington (James Fox). Darlington has died disgraced following accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer.
The film uses flashback to chart Steven’s time serving Darlington alongside Housekeep Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). During this time, it becomes apparent Kenton has feelings for Stevens but duty must come first.
Another quality heritage production period from Merchant Ivory featuring the reoccurring themes from ‘an age of repression and duty’ as embodied by Hopkins’ character contrasted against the younger more emotional Miss Kenton. There film also features a cast of ‘Brit hopefuls’ including Ben Chaplin, Lena Headey and a pre-Four-Weddings Hugh Grant.
The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards but came up against Schindler’s List and Philadelphia. In the aftermath of Four Weddings, the definition of what justified a ‘quintessentially British film’ also altered slightly as the spotlight moved away from the more staunch ‘heritage film’.
11. Secrets and Lies (1996)
Mike Leigh directs another of his largely improvised dramas, this one starring Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia, a ‘typical (white) working class’ factory worker with her own dysfunctional family who is contacted by Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptise) the baby she gave up for adoption as a teenager. Matters become more complex when, still coming to terms with the situation herself, Cynthia introduces Hortense (a successful black middle-class optometrist) to her extended family – forcing them to confront difficult truths concerning their own lives.
The film received a string of nominations and awards, Blethyn’s performance is both genuine and memorable. The reveal in the cafe (filmed in a single uninterrupted take) as the recollection of truth hits Cynthia is as spellbinding as it is slightly difficult to watch – such is the empathy Blethyn’s performance creates. Timothy Spall too, puts in a fine performance as Cynthia’s brother Maurice. The film also has much to display regarding the questioning class divisions, stereotypes and identity.
10. The Long Day Closes (1992)
It would be easy, and careless, to dismiss Terence Davis’ (seemingly forgotten) film as another love letter to cinema – the opening featuring a sound bite from The Ladykillers. This film is far more than that, a semi-autobiographical tale based on the director’s childhood in 1950’s Liverpool.
11 year old Bud (Leigh McCormack) is the sensitive youngest child of a fatherless working class family. Spending his time visiting the cinema, Bud escapes into a fantasy world, away from the reality of the outside world. At the same time, Bud is also awakening to the sexual interest he finds in men.
This is a film with no overtly driving narrative; it drifts into a series of memorable anti-realist/fantasy images screened against a rolling score capturing Bud’s moments of escapist wonder and looming religious guilt.
The image of Bud (a young boy) holding a touch to the sky or sitting in the light of the projector creates a resemblance to 1990’s Cinema Paradiso – perhaps overshadowed this is one of the reasons the film remains less well known than it is. The mix of burgeoning homosexuality, religion and musical score also makes this film oddly reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s 1974 ‘play for today’ Penda’s Fen.
9. The Madness of King George (1995)
Adapted by Alan Bennett from his own play, the film is based on the real life ‘madness’ of British monarch George III (who was in fact now believed to be suffering from acute intermittent porphyria) and an attempt by the then Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) to have himself instated as monarch. However, despite many failed ‘primitive cures’ Dr Willis (Ian Holm) improves the King’s (Nigel Hawthorn) condition just in time.
Director (Sir) Nicholas Hytner went on to direct Bennett’s 2006 film The History Boys. Bennett himself also makes an appearance in the film. The film, also starring Helen Mirren, marked a slightly bawdier more colourful shift in heritage production. The title of the original play (The Madness of George III) was allegedly altered to aid clarity as to the royal identity of the central character and not, as urban myth speculates, to prevent audiences from assuming it was a sequel.
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