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Fall Preview / A Guide to the Season in Arts and Entertainment

Venice Fest 'Renaissance' Has British Tinge

Movies: The festival pays tribute to filmmakers in England, where an infusion of money is resulting in works with a broader appeal.


VENICE, Italy — Carine Adler stood nervously on the Lido beachfront surveying the crowd, her debut minutes away. Great, the director thought. A hip young audience for her hip feature film, "Under the Skin." Then she spotted the nun.

Adler and Kate Ogborn, her producer, looked at each other, then back at the nun, who was in line with a ticket and wearing a habit. "You tell her!" Ogborn said. "Tell her not to go in!"

Their panic was understandable. "Under the Skin" is the scandalous story of Iris, an angry young woman who grieves for her dead mother by going on a promiscuous rampage through Liverpool. Carried by the restless edginess of its protagonist, played by Samantha Morton, 19, the film leaves little to the imagination.

"Under the Skin" is a product of the raw creative forces and new financial opportunities that in recent years have made Britain's film industry the most acclaimed in Europe. The Venice International Film Festival, which ends today, is unveiling eight new features in a special "British Renaissance" section, the first to honor a foreign country in the festival's 54-year history.

"It's a signal at a major festival that the British really are coming, that we are respected on the world scene," said Derek Malcolm, film critic of the Guardian.

But for those inside the showcase, Venice is more a trial than a reward. The festival is a meeting point for the movies' sales agents and distributors from around the world. For Britain's increasingly prolific filmmakers, whose home audience is limited, a deal struck here can make the difference between commercial success and failure.

Which is one reason Adler and Ogborn were so nervous about the nun.

"You never know what kind of audience will turn up here," Adler said.

What if people walk out? What if they boo? A distributor who is sitting there can be influenced by the crowd as easily as by a review in the next day's newspaper.

Festivals like Venice, which draws a mostly European crowd to the balmy Adriatic seafront for 11 days each summer, have helped boost the renown of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and other pioneers of Britain's film revival. This year's showcase went on despite the shock of Princess Diana's death, which prompted organizers to lower Britain's flag at the festival to half-staff.

At the root of the revival is better financing in Britain. Commercial television, once thought to be an enemy of film, has become a big producer of movies in Britain, with Channel 4 and the British Broadcasting Corp. leading the way. Since 1995, the government has doled out National Lottery money to finance filmmaking.

These incentives keep talented directors from defecting to Hollywood and encourage them to go beyond the literary costume genre that has long typified British cinema. Movie makers are turning out films attractive to European buyers looking for low-cost alternatives to Hollywood blockbusters.

The comedy "Four Weddings and a Funeral," made for less than $5 million in 1994, grossed $250 million worldwide, and the proliferation of new British themes continued with last year's black comedy hit "Trainspotting."

"The British make the best films in Europe," said Roberto Cicutto, head of Italy's Mikado distribution company, who came here to look at the newest crop. "The stories they tell are better written and less provincial, more easily understood by foreign audiences. And they have a lot of fantastic actors, including many who are barely known."

Nearly moribund in the mid-1980s, British studios drew $1.1 billion in investment last year, up two-thirds from 1995, according to the trade publication Screen International. They turned out 123 films, compared with 81 in 1995.

"There are dozens of people trying to make all sorts of movies, from the period pieces to the 'Trainspottings' to the modern thrillers," said Malcolm, who helped choose the British films for Venice festival director Felice Laudadio.

"I cannot point to an instant masterpiece among them," the critic said. "But I can point to a lot of very interesting films, much more varied than we're seeing now from Hollywood, which is predicated toward special effects and brain-dead scripts."

The most touted British entry, Alan Rickman's "The Winter Guest," is among 18 films vying for Venice's top prize, the Golden Lion. Starring Emma Thompson and her stage actress mother, Phyllida Law, in their first portrayal of a daughter and mother on screen, the film is a comical and tragic story of four sets of characters in an ice-bound Scottish village.

The "Renaissance" showcase includes two traditional period pieces, one based on Richard Ellmann's biography of Oscar Wilde, the other on the Henry James novel "The Wings of the Dove."

"Regeneration" is adapted from novelist Pat Barker's trilogy about World War I.

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