Saturday Night Spotlight #14: Antonia Bird

The films of English director Antonia Bird (1951-2013) capture the complexities of human relationships. She got her start with directing for television, working on British shows like “EastEnders,” “Casualty,” “The Bill,” “Inspector Morse” and “Peak Practice.” Although Bird directed only four feature-length films, she continued working on TV until her death from cancer last year, a number of TV movies and episodes of series including “MI-5” and “The Village.” Her willingness to tackle tough subjects and her constant collaboration with the Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, starting with the TV movie Safe (1993), has been appreciated by fans all around the world.

Priest (1994) – Controversial upon its release, this drama stars Linus Roache as a Catholic priest who is torn between his vocation and his romantic feelings towards other men. He is involved with a local man (Robert Carlyle, who worked with Bird often) but the meetings are always clandestine. Another man of the cloth (Tom Wilkinson) suspects that Roache has a conflict of some kind, but if Roache’s secret life comes to light, what will happen to him both personally and professionally? The acting, screenplay by Jimmy McGovern, cinematography by Fred Tammes, score by Andy Roberts and editing by Susan Spivey work together to make it a film that I definitely recommend. Priest was nominated for the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the BAFTA Awards and it also won awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, proving a high level of international recognition.

Mad Love (1995) – Briefly moving into the realm of Hollywood filmmaking, Bird tells a tale common in American storytelling: that of young lovers on the run (Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell). Barrymore’s character has some mental health problems, complicating the pair’s escape and their attempt to live on the road. The film, which was written by Paula Milne, also stars Joan Allen, Jude Ciccolella, Matthew Lillard and an early role for Liev Schreiber as a salesman.

Face (1997) – The face belongs to Robert Carlyle (winner of prizes from the Evening Standard British Film Awards and the London Critics Circle Film Awards for this performance), who stars as a has-been bank robber trying to stay in the game. Heavy on the violence and language, the film also features Ray Winstone (always a formidable presence in films made on both sides of the Atlantic), Gerry Conlon (not a professional actor – he was the man who had been wrongly convicted of the Guildford pub bombings in 1974), Lena Headey, Damon Albarn (best known as the lead singer of the Britpop band Blur) and Peter Vaughan. As was the case with Priest and Mad Love, Fred Tammes again collaborates with Bird as the cinematographer.

Ravenous (1999) – Bird’s final film, which has become a beloved cult classic in the fifteen years since its release, blends history and gory horror in a story of Mexican-American War soldiers whose bloodlust on the battlefield morphs into cannibalism. Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce star as the two particularly flesh-hungry colonels, alongside David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer and Stephen Spinella. Damon Albarn, who had had an acting role in Face two years earlier, co-composed the score for Ravenous with Michael Nyman. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin wrote in 1999 that “If there’s anything worse than a cannibal movie, it’s an undead-cannibal movie with pretensions about Manifest Destiny in the American West,” but I say it’s time for a reevaluation.

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