A man-eating alien, set loose on the Scottish Highlands and played by a glamorous American star, may not look like a fitting figurehead for a major British film industry revival, but Scarlett Johansson's role in Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited Under the Skin is the most eye-catching offer in an extraordinary lineup of premieres next month.
These include a dozen promising British features, from costume drama to a comedy about a doppelganger to an honest look at middle-aged marriage, made by celebrated new film-makers such as Richard Ayoade, Steve McQueen and Ralph Fiennes as well as by established names including Stephen Frears, Terry Gilliam and Roger Michell. All have been selected for coveted screenings at the leading film festivals in Venice and Toronto, where festival directors are already hailing the strongest British lineup for many years.
This Indian summer for British film follows the slim representation of British work at the Cannes film festival and has prompted critics and film producers to ask whether they are witnessing a genuine artistic resurgence or simply a coincidental blip.
"We are in an exceptionally rich time when it comes to directors in this country," said Paul Webster, producer of Steven Knight's thriller Locke, which premieres at Venice, stars Tom Hardy, and was shot in just eight days.
"It might be pure chance that Glazer's third film has finally come out now, because he has been making it for a long time, but there is a lot going on at the moment, although there is less money. Indie films can now take advantage of how quickly and cheaply films can be made, and there is a proven audience demand for high-quality storytelling."
Glazer's adaptation of the Michel Faber book is the most widely anticipated British film due to the director's notoriously slow hand behind the camera. His first film, the acclaimed gangster story Sexy Beast, came out in 2000, and his second, starring Nicole Kidman, four years later.
"The return of Glazer is one of the most anticipated events at this year's Venice and Toronto," confirms film writer Matt Mueller. "His last film was the creepy and excellent Birth, nearly 10 years ago, and Under The Skin has been simmering in our consciousness for nearly two years now – it was shot in November 2011 – so the suspense about what he has managed to create is huge."
Producer James Wilson welcomes the growing anticipation and defends his director from the suggestion that he hung back. "Jonathan really wanted to get certain elements of this story right. He wanted to get across the way that an alien might look at our culture, rather like we look at animals, and it took time to work this out," he said this weekend.
Joining Glazer at both Venice and Toronto will be Frears with his film Philomena, which sees Steve Coogan cast in the role of BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith. In Toronto they are to be joined by Fiennes, who follows up his acclaimed film of Shakespeare's Coriolanus with an adaptation of Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, telling the story of Charles Dickens's lover, Nelly Ternan. Gaby Tana has produced both films and feels British film has the wind behind its sails at last.
"There is a real chance now because there is really fine support at the moment from BBC Films, the BFI and from Film4, with the help of the tax credit, too. There are good people in good places now in the industry, and that really helps. The talent has always been there, but now there is the mechanism too," she said. "For me it has been an amazing year to get two such films made. And in terms of the British industry, I think there is something to be said for being in the groove. Work makes more work, and what will make a real difference next is if these films perform well in cinemas."
The Nigerian writer and director Biyi Bandele will also be leading the British charge at Toronto with the premiere of his adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half a Yellow Sun, filmed in London and Nigeria. It stars Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and is produced by Andrea Calderwood, who made The Last King of Scotland.
Bandele said: "There seems to be a lot happening right now on the British film scene. There is a lot of energy certainly, and a lot of confidence. And the more, the better. I don't see other film-makers as competitors. It is about their passion to tell a story. Britain has a great film history, and without an industry you find a lot of British talent heading to America."
A second British-backed African story screening at Toronto will be Justin Chadwick's Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. Other British world premieres at the Canadian festival include Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave; The Double, a comedy from Richard Ayoade who made Submarine; and a new film from the regular film-making team of director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi who will premiereLe Week-End. The film, which is set in Paris, stars Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent and Jeff Goldblum and opens in British cinemas on 11 October. Michell commented: "It is wonderful to have had so much interest from festivals, but we have to hold our breath to see how it is received. Hanif and I went out to Paris seven years ago to research this story, and there is certainly less of the Gaîté Parisienne experience than in Midnight in Paris [Woody Allen's 2011 Oscar-winner]. A lot of the things that happen to our characters are the opposite of romantic."
On the question of a British film resurgence, Michell, a comparative veteran who directed Notting Hill and Hyde Park on Hudson, is cautious: "There is a cycle that means British films are often crammed together at the end of the summer because they don't want to compete with the big American tent-pole films of the summer." He agrees that Toronto, regarded as the beginning of the annual film awards season, is looking healthy for Britain, but warns: "I have been tricked into believing in a new confidence too often. We should wait and see. There are clusters of good British films that people look at later as if they are stuck together, and it is possible that this will look like one in the future. Clearly there is a respect here for actors and writers that is different to America."
One international film-maker taking a British film to the Venice festival has more faith in the flowering of a fresh cinematic movement. Uberto Pasolini, director and writer ofStill Life, starring Eddie Marsan and Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt, believes that, although the best British films are frequently saved for the autumn, there is a greater selection of new and old directors. "Perhaps somebody will complain again next spring that there are no films ready for Cannes, but I think what has happened in the British film industry is there are new voices coming through, as well as interesting work from an older generation. Producers are backing the old guard as well as supporting some younger, fresher voices," said the Italian, who produced The Full Monty.
"And I do think there is such a thing as national cinema. There is individual cinema first, and then a film-maker brings his background and his nationality to the film. Ultimately a film is something with a specific identity that can become universal. It is also true that the European way of film-making is different to the way that films are made in Hollywood, and we can say that British film-making straddles both."
For Mueller, the "gnashing and wailing" about Cannes was premature. British film-makers are now wise, he feels, to the opportunity that Venice and Toronto offer them. "The Toronto rebound shows that the lack of British titles at Cannes was simply down to films not being ready in time. That was definitely the case with McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, which every festival was desperate to get. But it also shows Toronto's increasing importance on the festival calendar as a launching pad. As far as awards contenders go, they are far more likely to emerge from Toronto than Cannes these days, and every British producer would love to get the turbo boost that both The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire received at Toronto."
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