It’s no secret that 2020 has been a difficult year for cinemas. Closed by necessity at the start of lockdown in March, their reopening has seen them hit with all sorts of problems, exacerbated by constant delays to the biggest releases – notably including Marvel’s slate of films and the hotly anticipated James Bond flick No Time To Die. This lack of mega-budget fare eventually resulted in the temporary shutdown of all Cineworld’s venues and has led many to fear for the future of the industry, which has for a long time hinged on the success of a number of huge tentpole releases.
The developments are worrying for film fans, but while the outlook for cinemas themselves might be bleak, the same is not true for the quality of films that have been released since restrictions originally lifted. Indeed, while it’s understandable cinemagoers might be hesitant to return to the cinema in the present climate – I was trepidatious myself – a shortage of available films is certainly not a reason to abstain from the big screen experience. That’s because, despite the lack of blockbusters currently available, all sorts of wonderful new films have been released in recent weeks, some to relatively little fanfare.
It’s stating the obvious to suggest Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been the headline grabber when it comes to post-lockdown releases (it’s even been billed as the ‘saviour of cinema’). But while that film has its supporters, I found it something of a disappointment, bogged down by its complicated plot mechanisms and a distinct lack of compelling characters. Instead, my best experiences since returning to the cinema have been for two much smaller releases: Sarah Gavron’s Rocks and Rose Glass’ Saint Maud.
Rocks marks Gavron’s first film since 2015’s Suffragette, and represents something of a change of pace for the director. Created in collaboration with its cast, the film is fresh, lively, and has so much heart, expertly capturing the experiences of its protagonists in an authentic and poignant fashion. Much of its success can be put down to the young actors at its centre: the stars involved are largely first-timers, but they act as well as far more seasoned performers. In particular, Kosar Ali is remarkable – the young actor has charisma to spare, while the easy chemistry between her and impressive lead actor Bukky Bakray is a joy to behold. The release window for Rocks was relatively short, but the good news for those that missed it is that the film is now available to stream on Netflix – I would urge anyone to watch it as soon as possible.
Saint Maud, meanwhile, is the debut feature of Rose Glass and a more challenging experience. Tense, stylish, and at times rather difficult to watch, the film is a heartbreaking case study of loneliness, with an extremely menacing and unsettling atmosphere characterised by an inescapable sense of paranoia. Morfydd Clark is nothing short of spectacular as the delusional Maud, while the film’s shocking closing shot is one no viewer is likely to forget in a hurry.
In terms of mood, tone, and subject matter, these two films couldn’t be much more different – one is a vibrant and emotional coming of age tale set in present-day London, the other a chilling and discomforting character study presented as a horror film. But they also have a few crucial things in common: both are bold British films with their own unique style and voice. Both are anchored by terrific performances from their lead and supporting actors. And both left me with that giddy feeling of awestruck wonder you can only get after a trip to the pictures. In other words, Rocks and Saint Maud are the kinds of films that remind viewers just what they stand to miss in a world without cinemas.
I should make it clear that the presence of bold and exciting British films is hardly an anomaly. Three of my favourite releases of 2019 (namely In Fabric, The Souvenir, and Bait) fall into a similar category, while you could pick any year at random and find a huge supply of great British productions. Moreover, despite the uncertain future of the industry, there are several more on the way: films such as Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself and Francis Lee’s Ammonite have been met with significant acclaim following their debuts at the recent London Film Festival, while other upcoming releases including Remi Weekes’ His House and Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli have also been lauded by critics. Now more than ever we should be championing these vital films and singing their praises: cinema might be having difficulties amid the pandemic, but it’s been another tremendous year for British film.
Rocks is currently streaming on Netflix, while Saint Maud is showing at UK cinemas. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.