A few weeks ago, I saw something extraordinary: a cinema audience unable to leave the theatre after what they had just seen.
We had all just watched ’12 Years A Slave’, the incendiary new movie from director Steve McQueen. The experience had left us shell shocked. It was only once the credits had been rolling for a couple of minutes that people, myself included, were able to compose themselves enough to slowly rise to their feet and begin shuffling towards the exit.
Even as I made my way out, I saw people still sitting in their seats, processing what they had just been through. We were all dumbfounded, at a loss for words. It was less of a night at the movies and more of a profound human experience. I struggle to remember the last time I’d seen a film do that to a room full of people.
Steve McQueen’s mercurial rise as an acclaimed film-maker is matched by only one other director at present: Ben Wheatley, whose last film, ‘A Field In England’, was praised by everyone from The Independent to Martin Scorcese. Wheatley’s artistic background differs from McQueen’s. The latter studied art at Goldsmiths whereas the former made his name with viral clips after teaming up with his wife and creative partner Amy Jump. Both men cut their teeth on a number of short films before making their mark with bold, confident features. In Wheatley’s case it was 2009’s Down Terrace, a kitchen-sink crime drama which exhibited the director’s ability to meld naked human emotions with black-as-your-hat comedy. McQueen had made a handful of films before but he announced his arrival on the world stage with 2008’s ‘Hunger’, a stark, brutal but beautifully-shot film about IRA martyr Bobby Sands. It showcased McQueen’s ability to find moments of serenity and beauty amid degradation and suffering, as well as his gift for visual artistry. His follow-up, 2010’s ‘Shame’, was a dark, brooding meditation on the nature of sex addiction while Wheatley took a great leap forward with his 2011 hit-man horror feature ‘Kill List’ and 2012’s serial-killers-on-holiday comedy ‘Sightseers’.
One of the most exciting things about both directors is their versatility. Having dealt with topics as diverse as political prisoners, sex addicts and the horrors of slavery, one of McQueen’s next projects will be a television show for the BBC chronicling the lives of black Britons across the decades. Wheatley is about to start work on his first American effort, a horror film called ‘Freakshift’ and will also be directing the first episodes of the new series of ‘Doctor Who’. The success of both directors, forged entirely on their own terms, has now empowered both with complete creative freedom. They are free to take their vision wherever they want. Wheatley, in particular, has harnessed the power of grass roots as a viable business model as ‘A Field In England’ was made for very little money and distributed via digital platforms. With no-one to answer to but himself, he was free to make the film he wanted.
Both Wheatley and McQueen are only a handful of films into their careers, but the amount of creativity and raw talent on display from both is incredible. They are not only spearheading a renaissance in British film-making but also are world-class film-makers in their own right. Their movies may not always be the most comfortable to watch, but they are also striking, dynamic works which reaffirm the notion of craftsmanship in motion pictures. It would not be unreasonable to assume that a few years from now, they will take their place in the panthenon of great British directors like Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle. And they’ve only just got started.
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