8 August 2009

BETTER THINGS (Dir. Duane Hopkins, 2008, UK) - The Vacancy of Youth

The film is set in the Cotswolds - director Duane Hopkins said that rural England as a setting is often under used in British cinema.

This is undoubtedly one of the more impressive British films I have come across this year and has rightly been a cause for celebration – Sight and Sound continue to champion Duane Hopkins 2008 debut ‘Better Things’ as a challenging and unconventional piece of work. Though it was one of the best reviewed British films of 2009, I don’t think the film was pushed as well as it could have been by the distributor (Soda Pictures) and its journey to DVD has occurred relatively silently especially for a partially funded Film Four Production. The poetic realism invoked by Hopkins doesn’t sit too well with British audiences and British cinema as the film adopts a rigour that aspires to the art house sensibilities of contemporary European auteurs like Kieslowski, Polanski and Bruno Dumont.

However, such poetic realism is not all too alien to the lexicon of British cinema as one only has to name check the work of documentary film makers like Humphrey Jennings in the 30s and 40s to be reminded of the avante-garde nature of documentaries like ‘Listen to Britain’ and how experimental they were in their striking use of sound and editing. Though such a tradition of poetic realism may not have a firm place within British cinema, ‘Better Things’ manages to retain the importance of the realist aesthetic through an ensemble cast made up of non professional actors, many of whom had been through their own personal trauma of drug abuse and addiction. Hopkins contemplative gaze is far closer to the stillness and transcendental style of a European film maker like Kieslowski. I’m not sure about the comparisons with The Dardenne Brothers as the neo realist vein characterising their work seems far removed from the very bold, deliberate symmetrical framing used by Hopkins.

The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

In many ways, the work of Steve McQueen, another British film maker who also debuted in 2008 with ‘Hunger’ seems far more appropriate in terms of a comparative reference point. Both could be viewed as an off shoot of expressionism, which links to what impressed me the most about ‘Better Things’ – Hopkins is brave enough to let the spectator infer meaning from the associative editing with many of the scenes falling into one another, amounting to a statement about how most of us lead parallel lives of despair. Though the youth seem to form a central part of the film’s narrative, this is equally a film about the sobering banality of rural England. It is also reassuring to see such an unconventional British film receiving partial funding from the UK film council (the film was awarded lottery money) and deservedly make it to the 2008 Cannes film festival. I just hope the British film industry has it in them to continue helping such talented indigenous film makers like Steve McQueen and Duane Hopkins.

For a comprehensive analysis of the film, Jonathan Romney’s piece for Sight and Sound makes for exemplary reading. In addition, the official website for the film offers some very useful downloadable pdf pressbooks including a full length interview with the director.


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