Even before COVID-19 struck, Britain was a divided and troubled country with plenty of problems. It’s into that world that producing duo John Jencks, Isabel Freer and Georgia Goggin introduced The Uncertain Kingdom — a project in which 20 directors were each given £10,000 to make a short film with something to say about our nation.
With a diverse roster of filmmakers — complete gender parity and an admirable ethnic range — the stories take all forms, from punchy comedic skits to dark dramas and intriguing documentaries. This is an anthology in which the absurd tale of a patriotic man determined to turn into a swan can sit next to an experimental showcase of dance choreography, illustrating how difficult it is to explain the suffering of Black people to a white partner.
The Uncertain Kingdom is split into two volumes, with each featuring 10 of the shorts, spread across the three loose categories — fiction, documentary and experimental. The pick of the first volume is almost certainly Sophie King’s Swan, in which Game of Thrones alum Mark Addy plays the aforementioned patriot with avian ambitions in a smartly comedic political allegory with a killer punchline. Special credit should also go to Lab Ky Mo’s compelling British People, in which a Chinese-British woman standing for the Tory party must balance code-switching with her loyalty to her heritage.
Meanwhile, Volume II has its highlight in Eaten By Lions director Jason Wingard’s surreal Pavement, in which a homeless man (Steve Evets) literally disappears into the tarmac outside a bank. The metaphor is not subtle, but it is powerful. Another standout is the short-but-very-sharp Sucka Punch, which takes aim at the way corporations get their grubby, cynical mitts on social issues.
The highlights, though, really do run far and wide, with only a handful of the shorts failing to launch and falling flat. As far as the inherently mixed bag nature of anthologies goes, this one has a legitimately impressive hit rate. Jencks and his team deserve terrific credit for cherry-picking such a complex and intriguing tapestry of projects.
There’s also an interesting balance of established talent with new voices, both in front of the camera and behind it. One short sees comedy stalwart Hugh Dennis put in a fun performance as Death and Alice Lowe plays a casting director in the exceptional Verisimilitude. On the directorial side, the most memorable names are arguably The Levelling director Hope Dickson Leach and former EastEnders actor Ray Panthaki, who delivers a dark slice of drama with Ernie.
The overriding feeling when watching The Uncertain Kingdom is one of inspiration. As a state of the industry address for the future of British cinema, this shows a business in rude health. Naturally, the pick n mix nature of an anthology means that not every moment of this will be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s at least something in every short to appreciate and enjoy. And that’s far from uncertain.
Dir: Ellen Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Alison Hargreaves, Ray Panthaki, Sophie King, Hope Dickson Leach, Lab Ky Mo, Rebecca Lloyd-Evans, Dominika Ozynska, Lanre Malaolu, Iggy LDN, Jason Wingard, Stroma Cairns, Jason Bradbury, Carol Salter, Guy Jenkin, David Proud, Leon Oldstrong, Runyararo Mapfumo, Paul Frankl
Cast: Mark Addy, Alice Lowe, Hugh Dennis, Andy Hamilton, Steve Evets, Harriet Turnbull, Amara Okereke, Paul Kaye, Ian Pirie, Callum Myatt, Sally Bretton, Ruth Madeley, Jennifer Lim
Prd: John Jencks, Isabel Freer, Georgia Goggin
Run time: 237 mins
The Uncertain Kingdom is available on various VOD platforms now.