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As the world and the calendar turn, the idea that an accolade for the most promising director of 2006 could go to a Briton almost defies plausibility. A Briton? As in “Britain”? Isn’t this the film culture once soundly dismissed by François Truffaut (“British cinema is a contradiction in terms”)? Isn’t this the national industry that, as we reviewers learn year after year, turns out 12 clunkers for every diamond?
Yet Paul Andrew Williams’s “London to Brighton” divided critics between those who called it brilliant and those who called it brilliant-with-a- few-faults. It has pace, wit, style, conviction. As a gangster thriller it doesn’t try to be lovable: it presents its hoodlums as nasty thugs, not endearing mockneys. Ray Winstone is nowhere in sight, although stardom may beckon to Lorraine Stanley and Johnny Harris, reprising here the prostitute and pimp roles they first played for Williams in his early short “Royalty” (2001).
That film won him a brief deal with Fox Searchlight in Hollywood. It was a year-long contract but Williams quit after seven months (“The deal consisted of one 25-minute meeting. . .”)
Back in Britain on unemployment benefit, he scripted “London to Brighton” in three days and filmed it for £80,000. There was nothing glamorous about the shoot: 18-hour days battling with costs and weather, during which Williams, who had deferred his directing fee, went on collecting the dole.
He was then given £184,000 by the UK Film Council for promotion and distribution. Soon the man who never went to film school was having his first feature applauded by Sir Sean Connery and others at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where “London to Brighton” collected the Most Promising New Director award.
It may help that the 32- year-old Portsmouth-born filmmaker has a spooky resemblance to Britain’s Scott brothers. He could be younger sibling to Ridley and Tony: he has the same stare-you-out eyes and medium-craggy, lanternish face. But nepotism is no part of the story. He just got lucky by making a
film that took itself seriously, although not humourlessly, in a British genre that has long been mistaking flaky postmodernism for sophistication and special- effects gore for a realistic depiction of violence. “London to Brighton” sites violence where it belongs and begins – in the minds and emotions of the characters – and extracts humour only when it is in the core of the story.
Williams is already in production on his new film, a “black comedy/thriller/ horror” called “The Cottage”. He is also developing a road movie set in Spain called “Wisdom’s Last Legs”. Beyond that there are rumours that he wants to direct a Harry Potter film.
Well, nobody’s perfect. And we have no firm idea until we see more of them what a “Paul Andrews Williams movie” will come to be and mean, and whether his cinema beyond “London to Brighton” will have staying power. But the very fact there is a new filmmaker from Britain for the world to take interest in is a little miracle, even a minor apocalypse.