In the pantheon of British grimness they don’t get much grimmer than Fleisher’s “Ten Rillington Place”. It’s hard to imagine that Fleisher spent a huge amount of time in the UK prior to making it (or that Lumet did prior to “The Offence”, or Friedkin prior to “The Birthday Party” ) or that he can have had much first-hand experience of the era of post war austerity it documents. Part of its success is down to the cast and crew of course, the set design, the costumes, the location, the lighting and so on, and much of it to Fleisher’s claustrophobic camerawork, a kind of penny-pinching, drab expressionism.
But there is also a large extent to which “Ten Rillington Place” could have been concocted purely cinematically, out of old Ealing comedies, with their post-War devastation as a backdrop and Sixtie’s kitchen sink dramas. The film is in fact something of a hybrid of the two with a newly permissible level of Seventies sexual realism thrown in. It’s perfectly possible to imagine that Fleisher, working entirely outside England, with an entirely non-British crew could still have concocted something that rang true purely on the basis of having been steeped in the cinema of the decades that preceded it, rather as John Hawkes did with the novella “Whistlejacket”, summoning up a Britain he’d never visited through the stories he was told by British serviceman during the war.
Which leads on to a rough consideration of how best a non-native director might get a grip on England these days (we’ll leave aside the dystopian visions of “Children of men” and “Twenty Eight Weeks Later”, for the moment, though I concede that in some ways it’s only in the dystopian “imagining” of Britain that anything like a realistic representation of the place can come about). The two that most readily spring to mind are Cronenberg and Woody Allen, with two recent Brit-set movies a piece, “Spider” and “Eastern Promise”, “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream.” The most successful of these is “Spider”, arguably because it is largely a period piece and Cronenburg does have the same source material to draw on (it owes quite a lot to "Ten Rillington Place" I'd argue). Where it goes most weirdly and intriguingly wrong is in Allen’s “Cassandra’s dream”, a film which, even more so than “Match Point”, represents contemporary England, or at least London, almost exclusively through reference to previous representations. The London of “Match Point” is a Swinging London, the London of “Blow Up” crossed with the milieu of Losey’s “The Accident”. “Cassandra’s dream” keeps roughly the same vision of Britain but attempts to look at the lives and aspirations of ordinary folk. In his senescense Allen seems to have his had his fantasies that he’s Ingmar Bergman overtaken by the fantasy that he’s Dostoyevsky. With “Cassandra’s dream” all these shortcoming reach such a pitch of hyper-reality that you could actually be watching something like a Mockney version of Fellini’s “Toby Dammit”. Both appaling and fascinating.
The question must be, why are almost all contemporary cinematic visions of England so unsatisfying, why do they feel so wrong, when thirty years ago even the foreigners (and the guy who made “Fantastic Voyage”, at that) could get it right?