When an actor picks up a camera and decides to direct the results can surprise you. However- with few exceptions- critics seem eager to suggest they stick to their day jobs. As a result some of these films slip under the radar (David Schwimmer’s Trust; Diego Luna’s Mr. Pig – both good), meet their expectations (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jack Goes Boating – as solid as you’d expect) or become no different from the usual Hollywood fare (works by Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, and so on). Actors directing are part of the game but not a requirement or rule.
In this case I’m looking overseas to Britain and Scotland. I’ve noticed their actors don’t shy from making some of the most emotionally harrowing films to come out of the UK, tackling subjects that have effected them personally. Things that aren’t pretty. Things that have kept them up at night (and now they’ll keep you up too- yay!).
It’s like what they say in hip-hop: “Ain’t no movie like a movie directed by a UK actor ‘cuz no one does depressing like a UK actor except for maybe the Russians.”
This list of films goes from most uplifting to 100% tragedy.
Note: click on film titles for a direct link to where you can watch.
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Shelter (2014) directed by Paul Bettany
The plot for Shelter is one of several recent films giving an inside look on homelessness, including Time Out Of Mind starring Richard Gere and Hector starring Peter Mullan (more on him later). What sets it apart is that the story based on a homeless couple Bettany and his wife Jennifer Connelly befriended while living in NYC. During Hurricane Sandy they couldn’t find them and never saw them again, which fed into Bettany’s writing process. The film is dedicated to them.
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American Pastoral (2016) directed by Ewan McGregor
A film like this couldn’t sound more, er, American, but Ewan McGregor ended up taking up directorial duties after Philip Noyce backed out. And oh boy, this was no easy task for a debut. Not only did he have direct himself but take on an acclaimed and supposedly “unfilmable” novel as his source material. Pastoral deals with terrorism, radicalization, two mental breakdowns, a collapsing marriage and the unbreakable bond a parents can have with a troubled child. The end of the film is kind of like a punch in the stomach, depicting a devotion I could only imagine and few can understand.
The cast all turn in solid performances, including Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba and Jennifer Connelly (again).
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Nil By Mouth (1997) directed by Gary Oldman
This is the only film out of the bunch I haven’t seen, but the consensus is that it kind of makes you want to die. The story was based on Oldman’s childhood experiences growing up in a council estate in South London. Heroin, poverty, beatings, a violent Ray Winstone (more on him later) and a record-breaking use of the word “fuck” take front and center.
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The Unloved (2009) directed by Samantha Morton
Based on Morton’s own experiences in the foster care, Unloved follows a girl (Molly Windsor) who is removed from her home after her father (Robert Carlyle) beats her for forgetting to buy cigarettes. The film follows her through changes and upheavals in the system, from living with strangers in a group home to witnessing other types of abuse. It’s a portrait of isolation and silence as Windsor repeatedly runs away and dreams of something better, even if reuniting with her parents remains impossible.
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The Magdalene Sisters (2002) directed by Peter Mullan
Mullan wouldn’t be the first guy you’d peg as a feminist, mostly because his screen persona bristles with coiled violence and he has played several characters who abuse women. Nevertheless his directorial debut was about the Magdalene asylums and featured a nearly all-female cast, detailing the exploitation and hypocrisy visited upon girls at the hands of the Catholic church. Mullan even cameos as a father who drags his daughter back to the asylum after she runs away, making it clear he is more interested in telling the truth than making himself look good.
As a whole Sisters is a scathing take down of institutional violence. The story becomes even more upsetting when you realize these asylums were open until 1996.
(As a side note, I had the privilege of meeting and befriending one of the actresses in this film, Eithne McGuinness, who plays a particularly abusive nun. She said that when it came to real life, Mullan was incredibly gentle and supportive of the actresses on set, guiding them through particularly disturbing sequences. Thank God for professionalism.)
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The War Zone (1999) directed by Tim Roth
I’ve written about The War Zone before, since it’s one of the few films out there that tackle incest in an honest and non-exploitive way. The film follows the teenaged Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) as he uncovers evidence that his father (Ray Winstone) is raping his older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont). The scenes depicting the abuse are straight-forward and incredibly difficult for most viewers, not to mention the fallout between family members. It’s all the more stunning when you realize that Cunliffe and Belmont had never acted before and Roth made the film to deal with his own sexual abuse as a child.
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Tyrannosaur (2011) directed by Paddy Considine
This film begins with a dog getting kicked to death and hardly gets better after that. Considine directs Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan as a trio of dysfunctional and volatile characters living in northern England, linked by chance and mutual self-destruction. I can’t think of a film that made me feel so hopeless and suffocated, even though I was emotionally invested in the story. All in all, this isn’t a film for everyone but it’s so well made I can’t help but recommend it.
Also, I can’t believe that Considine and Colman met on the set of Hot Fuzz and decided this would be their next project.