Welsh film history: 2000-09

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Last updated: 05 March 2010

Two compelling debut features from Wales have attracted international attention in the century's first decade.

Former actress Amma Asante's fictional A Way of Life (2004) was a provocative, unrelenting look at life on an urban south Wales council estate rife with gang violence and racism. The film, notable for graphic language and outlandish, extreme behaviour, catches life as it is for many ill-educated, impoverished and discontented teenagers who find their chief solace among their peers.

The film would have been absorbing, if infinitely depressing, even without the brutal assault on a Turkish Muslim who seeks to defend a young mother from the racist bullies. These later scenes demonstrate that Asante was not prepared to let anyone off the hook, forcing her audience to confront everyday realities, however unpalatable.

A Way of Life won for Asante the Carl Foreman Bafta UK award for most promising new director. The film isn't likeable and might have gained much from a greater injection of hope or humour, but it has a raw honesty almost forcing a strong reaction from the spectator.

Gideon Koppel's Sleep Furiously, an affectionate, elegiac study of Trefeurig, a mid Wales agricultural community in gradual decline, garnered almost uniformly enthusiastic praise from critics in 2008. Lyrical but never sentimental, and affirmative in its study of likeable locals, despite its overall sense of regret, the film has a contemplative, reflective quality.

While inviting us to share the fascination of sheepdog trials, sheepshearing and village meetings. Koppel, son of artists who made their home in exile in Britain from the Nazis, has constructed a beguilingly quirky film, and he's patently a thoughtful visual artist by inclination - many shots have a striking, painterly quality, with a smidgen of surrealism thrown in.

Of established Welsh directors, Cardiff-born Marc Evans continued to impress with his versatility and willingness to tackle challenging subjects. His hit of the decade was the horror film My Little Eye (2002), a violent, cautionary take on reality shows inspired by Big Brother, exploring in extremis the morality and motivations of this problematic modern sub-genre.

His Snowcake (2006), in contrast, was a sensitive, psychologically acute examination of the tentative developing relationship between a couple (Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver) brought together in the most unpromising circumstances after a road crash death.

Another ex-actress to make an impact with a feature - her second of the decade - was Sara Sugarman, chiefly known in Wales for Very Annie Mary (2001), starring Jonathan Pryce, an uneven comedy, with one or two mannered performances, but a wholehearted celebration of individual eccentricity.

Sugarman, a north Walian, also made a clutch of shorts before moving to America where her comedy Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004), seemingly aimed squarely at the young US teenage market, reached the top three in the American box office charts.

This unashamedly lightweight work, crass in places, has few pretensions - but the exuberant tone, comic-book graphics and unusual choice of heroine (a self-centred girl with ambitions seemingly well above her station) ensure that the film frequently disarms.

Nick Hurran's 2002 comedy Plots With A View (a.k.a Undertaking Betty) with Christopher Walken as a mercenary modern undertaker with an infinite capacity for Philistine ideas and the 'hard sell', was too broad for some tastes and attracted some abrasive adverse comment, but deserved much better than its fate. It disappeared from view quickly after UK release, but did gain US distribution in 2005.

More appealing to many was Tim Lyn's S4C's period feature Eldra (2002), made by Cardiff's often groundbreaking but now sadly defunct Teliesyn company, and drawing on the actual life of Welsh-based Eldra Jarman, descendant of the legendary gipsy family of Abram Wood. Lyn's compassionate treatment elicits empathy for the Romany heroine, imaginative and feisty and inevitably often at odds with more conventional elements in a 1930s local community, in the shadow of the Penrhyn Quarry, north Wales.

Justin Kerrigan, after frustrating years of silence seeking to set up his second feature after Human Traffic (1999), finally emerged with the uneven, semi-autobiographical I Know You Know (2008) mainly notable for a fine performance, as a schizophrenic father, from Robert Carlyle.

Wyndham Price made a fine feature film debut with Abraham's Point (2009), a delightfully picaresque story of a seemingly unremarkable man's individual Odyssey into Wales to rebuild family bonds. Price wasn't afraid to punctuate the films narrative drive with appealing digressions allowing us to gain greater insight into idiosyncratic personalities.

Of the rising Welsh actors, Rhys Ifans after his success in Notting Hill (1999) has quietly consolidated his reputation in films in the decade after some abysmal choices early in his career. He had an impressive showcase as the dangerously delusional stranger stalking, and in turn obsessing Daniel Craig, in the engrossing Enduring Love (2004), from the Ian McEwan novel.

Matthew Rhys, many people's pick as most promising of the younger Welsh actors, scored a huge hit with critics on the stage in The Graduate (2000), with Kathleen Turner, and was impressive in a quiet way as Dylan Thomas in John Maybury's much-publicised 2008 feature The Edge of Love, an impressively made if ultimately slender piece about a wartime incident in the poet's life in which Dylan's women, Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley) became the film's main centre of attention.

The pick of Welsh animation work this decade has been Joanna Quinn's Dreams and Desires: Family Ties (2006), featuring her long-time heroine Beryl. It's more strident and earthy than previous Quinn work, but the film's one irresistible element, the daring and sumptuous 2D work, clinched the Cartoon d'Or, the European equivalent of Hollywood's animation Oscar.

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Mark Kermode

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