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Celebrating the nation’s love of satire and often dark in its choice of material, a great black comedy film combines all the elements of farce and cynicism in what could be perceived by some as an uncomfortable watch. It is a powerful genre in the right hands and combines shock and revulsion in an entertaining way to provoke reflection.
I’ve found that the best black comedy films directed by women combine both wry subtle humour with explicit shock values to deliver powerful, yet richly imagined pieces of film.
In no particular order this is my list of top five best British female black comedy directors.
“50 percent of people who enjoy horror movies, or enjoy thriller-y, frightening things, are going to love it. And the 50 percent who don’t find that entertaining are not going to find it entertaining, and I think that’s reasonable… – Antonia Bird on ‘Ravenous’
Born in London in 1971, Bird has produced and directed across a wide range of film and television genres in both the UK and USA.
Working her way up through regional theatres, Bird became Resident Director at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1978 from where she moved into television.
Originally working on the popular BBC show ‘Casualty’ (1986-1987), Bird was at the helm for the TV mini-series, ‘The Men’s Room’ (1991), a darkly comic exploration of an extra-marital affair set in the Thatcher years. Playing the lead role of womaniser, Mark Carleton, Bill Nighy credits this production as his breakthrough role.
Bird’s attraction to darker material is evident in her choices of film and television work. From police and forensic material such as working on ‘The Bill’, ‘Inspector Morse’ and directing the TV film, ‘Cracker’ to the black comedy film ‘Ravenous’ (1999); a film centering around the subject of cannibalism set in mid 19th century California.
With a tag line of ‘You are who you eat’ the film features Robert Carlyle and David Arquette and Guy Pearce. Typically with films of this genre it received mixed responses though the famous American film critic Roger Ebert commented that ‘Ravenous’ was “the kind of movie where you savor the texture of the filmmaking, even when the story strays into shapeless gore”.
‘Ravenous’ is a thrilling mix of unsettling gore thrown into sharp relief with a deliciously satirical and comic tone.
Her other noted works include the crime drama ‘Face’ (1997), about a film about a gang of criminals in post-socialist Britain committing heinous acts of murder and bank robbery, and ‘Priest’ (1994), a romantic drama written by Jimmy McGovern and also starring Robert Carlyle.
Educated at the University of London where she received a BSc (Hons) in Mathematics, Halewood is a screenwriter, producer and director.
Halewood scripted the Atlantic Film Festival Audience Award winning move, ‘One More Kiss’ (1999) starring Gerry Butler. She has worked on both short films, televisions, commercials and feature-length films. Her short film ‘Two Minute Warning’ (2000) won the Golden Boot award at Portobello.
“Dark, funny, charming, fast, immoral, decadent and delightful. The best double act buddies since Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid…” – Sunday Times Review of ‘Bigga than Ben’ (2008)
Her debut as a director on a feature length film was for the 2008 release ‘Bigga than Ben’. A darkly comic tale of two Russian students who arrive in the UK to get rich quick, the film descends into an absurd guide to the London immigrant underworld.
The film’s tagline ‘A Russian’s guide to ripping off London’ should tell you everything you need to know about this well received debut. The film won several awards and made it into The Times Top 100 Films 2008 list.
Absurd in places, ‘Bigga than Ben’ is laugh out loud funny whilst remaining an intelligent portrayal of a very real seeming sub-culture of London life.
She started filming ‘District 19’, a film featuring Neve Campbell and set in a derelict and grim futuristic film which sees the fate of the excess prison population meet their fate at the whims of an online community.
With film composer Carl Davis and actress Jean Boht as parents, it may have been inevitable Hannah Davis found a career for herself in the movie industry.
Initially getting into acting Davis met up with comedian and writer David Connolly where she became involved with producing, writing and directing alternative comedy. The pair went on to work together on several projects including documentaries, short films and open air theatre.
Both of her only two feature length films are black comedies with the first, ‘Mothers and Daughters’ (2004) an exploration of the often complicated relationship between two generations of women in the same family. An evocative and contrasting mix of a rundown British council estate, a middle class suburban setting and a psychotherapist on the edge ‘Mothers and Daughters’ was well received.
Her second film, ‘The Understudy’ (2008) follows the, at times agonisingly painful to watch, life of an understudy as she tries to roll with the punches of an unfulfilled life being treated as a second class citizen.
The real beauty of ‘Understudy’ could be missed by some confuse the brutal nature of the main characters single mindedness to achieve her ambitions as pure comic slapstick.
Born in 1905, Muriel Box was a prolific screenwriter and director having written the scripts for 22 films and directing a further 14. Originally working for British International Pictures as a continuity girl following an unsuccessful dancing and acting career, Box met her future husband with whom she would collaborate with in writing over 40 plays for amateur dramatic production.
Working during the second world war, Box directed ‘The English Inn’ (1941), a short propaganda film.
She won an Academy Award in 1946 for her screenplay for ‘The Seventh Veil’ along with her journalist husband.
Box developed her directing skills over a wide range of genres including comedy films ‘To Dorothy a Son; (1956) featuring Shelley Winters to WWII drama ‘The Lost People’ (1949) starring a young Richard Attenborough.
The film for which she is best known in the genre of black comedy is ‘This Other Eden’ (1959) an unusual and politically charged comic exploration of the conflict in a small Irish town surrounding the proposal to erect a statue in honour of a fallen IRA soldier.
A reflection of pre-1960’s Ireland, this film is rich in character, dark in humour and well rendered on the screen.
“It sounds corny but the only thing I really love doing is making-films…” – Sue Clayton
Writer and director, Sue Clayton has worked on a number of feature length films and writes for both the Sunday Times Travel supplement and Financial Times. She travels extensively for her work and has filmed across Europe, Alaska, USA and the UK.
Born and raised in Newcastle, Clayton also composes much of her own music for her films.
Adapted from an Australian short story, ‘The Last Crop’ (1990) was well received by the UK press on release and follows the exploitation of her clients homes, personal effects and secrets of a disgruntled cleaner.
Letting her friends benefit from the spoils of the houses she cleans so as to restore the balance between the working and upper classes the central character is both indignant and single-minded in her self-appointed mission.
Both highly funny and also uncomfortable to watch, one Sunday Times critic said “”there hasn’t been such a concerted one-woman attack on business opportunism since Rosalie Goes Shopping.”
‘The Last Crop’ is a film celebrating the determination of one woman, whatever the cost, to get what she wants….whatever stands in her way.
In 1997, Clayton directed ‘The Disappearance of Finbar’, a road movie of self-discovery to reconcile the missing Finbar with himself, his home and growing up.
Black comedy in the hands of a female director seem to share some of the same ingredients; the depth of understanding of emotions, the willingness to be playful in dark territory and uncomfortable truths rendered in sharp wit and comic observation of human nature. When it comes to the genre in the hands of a British female director these are combined with a real sense of warmth, welcome and celebration of , what can at times be quite, grim humour.