English as a first language
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There's certainly no shortage of homegrown film festivals to choose from, but the Mostly British Film Festival, which showcases English-language movies from countries other than the U.S. — India, Australia, Ireland, South Africa and the U.K. — has been consistently high-caliber since its founding 11 years ago by former SF Chronicle movie editor Ruthe Stein. Whether due to its mix of classic and first-run films and just the right balance of docs, dramas, thrillers and biopics, or the seasoned taste of its savvy lead programmer, the festival attracts a loyal following that eats up sections like this year's "Royals," devoted to historical films about that spoiled inbred lot whose heavy heads have worn the crown. Among the offerings is Shekar Kapur's beautifully appointed "Elizabeth" (1998), worth seeing on the big screen for the sumptuous production design alone, not to mention a star-making performance by Cate Blanchett, who shines as the Virgin Queen comes into her full powers.
MBFF kicks off on Feb. 14 with "The White Crow," which should set the hearts of balletomanes aflutter. Working from a script by British screenwriter David Hare, Ralph Fiennes' third outing as a director is a dance-centric biopic (he also plays the part of famed ballet master Alexander Pushkin) that follows the career trajectory of Russian ballet phenom Rudolf Nureyev from his humble origins in Siberia, where his mother gave birth to him aboard a train, to his transformative visit to France while on tour with the Kirov Ballet and his sensational defection to the West in a Paris airport in 1961. In the interest of verisimilitude he's played in the film by photogenic Kazan ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko. For Nureyev, who was gay and apolitical, part of the attraction of the West lay in its comparatively liberal attitudes toward sexuality. Evidently a diva from the get-go, with an outsized ego bigger than a grande jete, Nureyev's Slavic cheekbones, on-stage athleticism, bravura performance style and matinee idol looks made him an international celebrity.
Who knew that the Indian film industry's answer to Greta Garbo was a Jewish silent-film star named Ruby Myers? This is just one of the arcane facts shared in "Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema," a documentary that, in addition to examples of serious overacting and archival footage, reveals how Myers, Esther Abraham, Rose Ezra and a host of other Jewish actresses got the opportunity to headline Indian films from the 1920s to the 60s. A crucial factor in their rise to stardom was the reluctance of religiously conservative Hindu and Muslim women to be filmed, leaving juicy movie roles to be filled by aspirants from the less strict Jewish communities that had lived in India for over 2,000 years.
Anna Paquin, most identified with Sookie Stackhouse in HBO's "True Blood" and the resentful daughter in "The Piano," portrays Jean, a physician, in "Tell It to the Bees," a gentle tale of forbidden love based on the novel of the same name by British actress Fiona Shaw. Shortly following WWII and the death of her father, the good doctor returns to her childhood home in a Scottish village, where she tends to bee colonies — the film's dominant, inescapable metaphor — in her yard. She soon begins a clandestine love affair with Lydia (a sweet-faced, apple-cheeked Holliday Granger), and in no time they become the object of nasty gossip and small-town prejudice. Though at times director Annabel Jankel, co-creator of the virtual TV character Max Headroom, can be obvious in driving home the points she wants to make, her romantic period drama is a touching exploration of repressed desire and intolerance.
Delving into the psychology and stress fractures of a cratering relationship, "The Escape" stars Gemma Arterton, who brings brisk intelligence and subtlety to a character who's trapped in a barren wasteland of a marriage as she comes to terms with the realization she isn't a woman cut out to subsume herself in her husband's ambitions or achieve total fulfillment through motherhood. If you heard Glenn Close's moving acceptance speech about her mother at the Golden Globes, you'll recognize the dilemma. Quietly suffocating and starving for lack of emotional sustenance in her sterile, picture-perfect life, she feels increasingly isolated, even invisible, caring for her two children in a tidy suburb outside London, while her upwardly mobile, oblivious husband (Dominic Cooper) heads off to work, building what he thinks is a successful life for his family. Capable of seeing her only in her roles as wife and mother, he's bewildered by her despair. For her, though, it's famine in the midst of plenty; surrounded by buzzing domesticity and the trappings of material comfort, she feels utterly alone. Wisdom comes from a chance encounter with an empathetic stranger (Marthe Keller), and the potential for deliverance is found in the beauty of art and the sensual pleasures of Paris, which, thank goodness, is only a train ride away.
Festival special guest, the flinty British actress Maxine Peake, pitch-perfect as the brilliant, fiercely independent barrister making her way to the top of the heap in the BBC drama series "Silk," appears in two films. In "Funny Cow," co-starring Paddy Considine, she plays another ambitious woman, a sassy stand-up comic trying to score on the comedy circuit in the 1970s, while performing at male working-class clubs in Northern England, a tough crowd if there ever was one. Peake also heads the cast of the closing-night feature "Peterloo," the latest entry from director Mike Leigh. An historical epic that's one of his biggest budget productions to date, it represents a radical change of pace from the lightly satiric, sometimes scabrous ensemble pieces such as "Mr. Turner" and "Secrets and Lies" for which he's best-known. The new film centers on the notorious Peterloo Massacre of 1819, a dark, bloodstained chapter in British history when a cavalry regiment and hundreds of soldiers brutally attacked a working-class crowd of 60,000 that had assembled to peacefully demonstrate for the right to vote in Manchester, Leigh's hometown.
The Mostly British Film Festival runs Feb. 14-21 at the Vogue Theatre. Ticket & program info: www.mostlybritish.org