PRano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut, Censor, was released in the UK last Friday following a huge publicity campaign and wave of critical acclaim, from five-star reviews and magazine covers to tweets from directors such as Edgar wright and Sean Boulanger (the latter sporting a Prano Bailey-Bond T-shirt). Set at the height of the moral panic of the 1980s ‘villainous videos’, the film adopts and adapts the genre of bloody horror it portrays, focusing on a character still grieving for his long-missing sister.
The applause for the film has so far failed to translate into any significant box office revenue, aligning the film with other recent acclaimed UK debuts such as Ben Sharrock’s Limbo and Aleem Khan’s After Love . Saint Maud by Rose Glass, a debut film backed by the BFI Film Fund, has arguably reached mainstream audiences, but it seems clear that the hype doesn’t always turn into lasting success.
Previous critically acclaimed British debuts, screened at festivals and winning a few awards don’t give much cause for optimism: Richard Billingham (director of Ray & Liz, 2018), Daniel Kokotajlo (Apostasie, 2017), Daniel Wolfe (Catch Me Papa, 2014), Rungano Nyoni (I am not a witch, 2017) and William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth, 2016) have not made any feature films between them since.
For comparison, the first solo films of Americans Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele appeared in 2017, and both have long since released a follow-up and announced a third film. The same goes for Ari Aster, currently on his third film after releasing Hereditary as his debut in 2018. A few exceptions remain: Francis Lee’s Ammonite, his sequel to God’s Own Country, released last year, and Michael Pearce, director of Beast (2017), has a second effort in the pipeline. But there seems to be a tendency to uncover new talent in the UK and not support them beyond its first steps.
Why? What needs to change for British cinema to support young filmmakers? First, it seems likely that a repeated pattern of the industry’s wild excitement and exaggerated critical acclaim for young directors’ early efforts could be detrimental to their careers rather than beneficial. Few directors create hits from their first tilt – Censor is no exception – so directors need careful optimism and constructive criticism, in order to refine and develop their technique, which can only improve with. age.
It’s understandable that the critical establishment is lavishing praise on the new voices, as the UK film industry clearly lacks depth compared to, say, France, Italy, Poland or Romania. But the public, who need word of mouth, will not continue to shell out for what they have been promised is a masterpiece if it always turns out to be, instead, the promising but still effort. a bit young from a talented beginner. Meanwhile, creatives need two things: artistic freedom and industry support in the form of rewards and hard cash.
There are signs of positivity. Thankfully, after many desperate years in the wilderness, Bafta made some significant changes to their voting and membership processes last year, resulting in an awards ceremony with a slightly different flavor than in previous years, when prices fell too easily to American cinema. The awards this year went mostly to big names, but nominated alongside Frances McDormand in the Best Actress category were British actors Bukky Bakray (Rocks) and Wunmi Mosaku (His House). There is still progress to be made, of course, but publicity and recognition of creatives is necessary to sustain a vast field of talent.
The UK suffers from sharing a language with the US, Canada and Australia, which means the competition for English speaking audiences is fierce: other countries, perhaps, have the luxury of being able to play. in front of a more captive audience looking for films in their own language. British talent has long drifted to the United States for greater financial gain and more diverse opportunities, from directors such as Sam Mendes and Christopher Nolan to actors such as Daniel Kaluuya or Riz Ahmed. This means the UK is still catching up and grafting on our own talent for box office results once they gain weight from the US. Steve McQueen is one of those names – a director who can now direct his own projects, thanks to the investments, the awards and the fame of the United States.
Cuts to UK arts organizations and funding haven’t helped matters, and cinema has been further impoverished by the rise of TV streaming – but the industry has talent to spare, which with a careful culture and measured, could still be rebuilt into something solid.