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New Release Review [Digital] - THE UNCERTAIN KINGDOM

the uncertain kingdom review
20 films from visionary filmmakers, giving a bright flash of insight into how they see the UK now.


Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Jason Bradbury, Stroma Cairns, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hope Dickson Leach, Ellen Evans, Paul Frankl, Alison Hargreaves, Guy Jenkin, Sophie King, Iggy Ldn, Rebecca Lloyd-Evans, Lanre Malaolu, Runyararo Mapfumo, Lab Ky Mo, Leon Oldstrong, Ray Panthaki, David Proud, Carol Salter, Jason Wingard

Starring: Mark Addy, Alice Lowe, Hugh Dennis, Ruth Madeley, Andy Hamilton, Sally Bretton

the uncertain kingdom poster

The Uncertain Kingdom is a great idea. An anthology of 20 short films that doesn’t follow any particular aesthetic, narrative or thematic guidelines, with the only throughline being that the shorts collectively depict contemporary Britain, warts and all. There’s so much value to this film: representation and the opportunities of discussion, a showcase for emerging actors and directors, an entertainment experience that can be easily broken up and savoured or feverishly binged. Of course, none of this matters if the work isn’t any good but this project has been beautifully realised by the participating filmmakers.

The Uncertain Kingdom, perhaps not unlike a post-Brexit Britain, is divided into multiple parts. There are six or seven films - all around 10 minutes each - under each of the following three labels: narrative, documentary and experimental. All three have generally strong collections of shorts, and while there may be thematic threads of difference or divide that can be loosely connected from beginning to end, they’re all rather distinct in their storytelling ambitions.

the uncertain kingdom review

The narrative section begins with Sophie King’s humorous Swan, a mockumentary in which a man played by The Full Monty star Mark Addy has his marriage tested once he wins a citizenship competition that’ll turn him into a swan. The differences between husband and marriage are probably the clearest metaphor for Brexit in The Uncertain Kingdom. Paul Frankl’s The Life Tree cuts way too close to the bone, following a Bolivian migrant woman looking to save her son as he slowly dies from plastic pollution. Super depressing and pertinent to the discussion around ethnic minorities and healthcare that’s been of particular concern during the Covid-19 outbreak.

David Proud’s Verisimilitude begins like something Ricky Gervais would’ve written, following an unemployed disabled actress who gets a gig in coaching an obnoxious able-bodied actor on how to perform a disability. The point about shunning access to aspiring disabled actors is hammered over our heads but it’s an important point nonetheless. Lab Ky Mo’s intriguing British People stands out for its unique viewpoint - it explores family dynamics in a political context through the story of a Conservative candidate set to make history as the first female British-Chinese MP.

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Guy Jenkin, director of the warm dramedy What We Did on Our Holiday, presents another warm dramedy with Death Meets Lisollete, a whimsical odyssey about a young girl learning about death by meeting the grim reaper, who’s locked in a barn. If Disney bookended their features with live-action shorts as well as animation ones, this would be the type of film I suspect we'd see. Ray Panthaki’s Ernie, a sombre character study of a caretaker, brings the mood down with the depressing trifecta of loneliness, dying parents and Brexit.

Jason Bradbury’s Isaac and the Ram is more of the same, positing a former skinhead security guard and a gay homeless teenager together for a gloomy redemption story. My only existing reference for filmmaker Jason Wingard is his comedy Eaten by Lions so it was a great surprise to see him approach wildly different territory with his short Pavement, in which a woman tries to save a homeless man from oppressive authorities. It’s one of the most visually arresting films I've seen about homelessness, one where you see the rough sleeper literally sink into the ground as an unsympathetic bunch attempts to forcibly remove him from where he sits. It’s the final film in the narrative section and perhaps the most outstanding one.

the uncertain kingdom review

The documentary section kicks off with Left Coast, which observes kind volunteers in the Fylde Coast towns handing out food at food banks. While it may not showcase creativity in doc making, Carol Salter’s film certainly showcases the best of humanity. Ellen Evans’ powerful Motherland gains stunning access to Jamaican-born Brits who’ve been forcibly deported to their “home country” despite being in the UK for decades. It’s full of poignant testimonies and gorgeous compositions.

Dominika Ozynska’s We Are Not the Problem runs for just two minutes, owing to the time-consuming hand-drawn animation format, succinctly sharing the perspective of a Polish migrant in the UK. Runyararo Mapfumo’s What’s in a Name is the film with the most significance to me personally: it collates Brits with non-Western names who respond to the titular question. It’s a great audio-visual piece, showing the personalities of off-screen contributors through carefully composed shots of their domesticity while they tell us engaging personal anecdotes and give their thoughts on the impact of names across a person’s life.

Leon Oldstrong’s Borrowed From Our Children borrows its title from a Native American proverb about the future of our Earth and thus pays tribute to the working class communities of London, including Grenfell, by centring around the children. My petty gripe with this otherwise undeniably moving piece is that I thought it was a commercial at some point. Stroma CairnsSauna is also London-oriented, zooming in on a community gym sauna, and it makes us yearn for the days where we could be so close to strangers and connect with them if we wanted, a time where we weren’t so worried about a life-threatening virus. So, about three months ago.

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We begin the experimental section with Antonia Campbell-HughesAcre Fall Between, which follows a man on the Northern Ireland border fearing for his family and future. Mixing anonymity and subtlety, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about but it’s enjoyably suspenseful. Furthermore, I feel that this film has the best potential for a feature-length adaptation. Rebecca Lloyd-Evans uses Astarte, the goddess of war and sexual love, to examine a varied, thought-provoking set of perspectives on female sexuality in Grit/Oyster.

Hope Dickson Leach’s Strong is Better Than Angry would be more apt for the general doc section than experimental. It’s a chronicle of women taking kickboxing lessons and speaking on what makes them angry and how the sport serves well as an outlet. It’s awesomely stylish and inspiring, with the highlight being a steezy slow motion section of a woman boxing a bruising rubber bust of David Cameron. Naturally, politicians are a huge source of the anger here.

the uncertain kingdom review

On the other hand, Iggy LDN’s Sucka Punch doesn’t have anything to do with physically punching anyone but rather the cheap shots employed by online brands to exploit customers for profit. Smart and effectively made in the style of a big brand commercial to flip the meta. Rounding up the section is Lanre Malaolu’s The Conversation, an amazing short about the dialogue between black people and their white partners when expressing racial experience. Starting in a traditional fiction manner with a couple speaking over dinner, it morphs into a single-take, expertly choreographed dance that dynamically expresses the story through performance.

As you will have ascertained by now, The Uncertain Kingdom is a wonderfully diverse mélange of short cinema, very well curated to provide different artistic and entertainment experiences. The anthology format isn’t the first of its kind yet The Uncertain Kingdom feels fresh. Its unity of visions across the spectrum of British filmmaking offering something new and worthwhile. The project will be returning next year, focusing on artists’ response to coronavirus, and I’m confident that we’ll continue to discover exciting new voices within the UK.

The Uncertain Kingdom is on UK Digital from June 1st.




2020 movie reviews