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Mining for Gold: Welsh Cinematic Treasures
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Mining for Gold: Welsh Cinematic Treasures

Picture of Marcus Clark
Updated: 2 December 2016
The Welsh are often marginalised in discussions of British culture, lacking the pugnacity of the Scots or the pretensions of the English. Despite this, Welsh culture has traditionally punched above its weight, as the best of the Welsh film industry reveals. These films, which focus on the image of Wales new and old, create an enlightening portrait of the nation’s history, culture, heritage, and inhabitants.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

The production of How Green Was My Valley has become an infamous piece of Welsh cinematic trivia. The plans to film this depiction of Welsh village life in Wales were disrupted by the outbreak of World War Two, so to compensate a 3,000 acre set was built in the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu, with the actual Welsh village of Cerrig Ceinnen as inspiration. Although technically an American film, (with only one Welsh actor), this retelling of Richard Llewellyn’s classic novel is nevertheless intriguing for its depiction of the Welsh through foreign eyes. Sticking closely to the subject matter, veteran U.S director John Ford explores communal extinction and disintegration in the face of modernity. The film was nominated for an incredible ten Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture, seeing off competition from such classics as Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon.

Tiger Bay (1959)

Shot primarily in the Tiger Bay District of Cardiff, J. Lee Thompson’s crime drama places a 12 year old tom boy (Hayley Mills) at the centre of a murder investigation. The only witness to the killing, the information she possesses begins to put her in grave danger as she comes under the scrutiny of a police inquiry. With a particularly glowing debut from Haley Mills, the daughter of the renowned British actor John Mills, who also appears in the film, Tiger Bay is a deftly crafted thriller with character driven performances. It is also an interesting depiction of working class life, the film’s black and white cinematography complimenting the sorrowful atmosphere and capturing the urban dreariness of mid-20th century Wales.

Only Two Can Play (1962)

A forgotten gem of British comedy, Sidney Gilliant’s Only Two Can Play was a more sophisticated alternative to the popular Carry On series. Set in the fictional town of Aberdarcy, Peter Sellers plays Welsh librarian John Lewis. Frustrated both professionally and romantically, Lewis’ affections are torn between the two women in his life. One is the attractive set designer of the local amateur dramatics society (Mai Zetterling) and the other his vexing wife (Virginia Maskell). Based on the novel That Certain Feeling by Kingsly Amis, Peter Sellers in particular gives a sublimely nuanced performance which makes it starkly apparent why he was on the verge of international stardom.

Under Milk Wood (1972)

An adaptation of the radio play of the same name by revered Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood depicts a day in the life of a small Welsh fishing village called Llareggub (‘bugger all’ backwards) and the curious characters that inhabit it. Starring a trio of British acting legends, Peter O’Toole plays a blind sea captain still pining for his lost love Rosie, played by Elizabeth Taylor, whilst Richard Burton takes the role of the narrator. As one of the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century, Under Milk Wood brims with Thomas’ signature flourishes of linguistic genius and larger than life characters. The film acts as a glorious reminder of the astonishing talent possessed by the eccentric and beloved wordsmith, who has become a national cultural icon in Wales.

Grand Slam (1978)

Grand Slam tells the story of four members of a Welsh rugby club who travel to watch the national team in Paris where the victor of the Five Nations Championship will be decided. Technically made for TV, its charm and appeal is nonetheless evident. For anyone wanting to understand more about Welsh culture, an insight into the national passion for the country’s greatest sport is essential viewing. Produced by BBC Wales, the film has been broadcast regularly since its first transmission, the team’s eventual defeat apparently not deterring repeat viewings.

Above Us The Earth (1977)

Written, produced, and directed by radical Welsh director Karl Francis, Above Us The Earth is one of the nation’s most important films. Charting the disastrous pit closures of the 70s, Francis records the end of the Ogilvie colliery and the effects on the surrounding community. Influential for breaking the cinematic silence on the contentious closures; the film’s notable social and political commentary gave voice to the disenfranchised Welsh miners and created a platform for debate which could not be ignored. A combination of documentary and drama, both professional and amateur actors were used to authentically capture the dynamics between the workers, the unions, and the National Coal Board. Now part of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, Above us the Earth defines Wales as much as it documents it.

Twin Town (1997)

The first major role for Welsh rock star actor Rhys Ifans, Twin Town also stars his real life brother Llyr Ifans. Understandably the chemistry between the two leads is as natural as humanly possible. Their portrayal of a pair of criminal delinquents from a dysfunctional family and a hellish upbringing in the ‘graveyard of ambition’ in lower class Swansea is devilishly entertaining. The plot is driven by their desire to take revenge upon a small town gangster who refuses to pay compensation to their father after an accident at work. Sporting a maladjusted ensemble cast, Twin Town is as ruthless as it is comical and a valid representation of an apathetic existence, amidst urban decay.

Human Traffic (1999)

The Welsh answer to Trainspotting; writer-director Justin Kerigan’s Human Traffic puts a gang of twenty something’s under the lens during the drugs, dance, and club culture revolution in early 90s Britain. They undertake a feel good binge over a weekend in Cardiff to escape the banalities of their trivial weekday lives. Considered controversial upon its release because of the copious drug use it depicts, the film unleashed a torrent of social and political debate. An interesting and authentic snapshot of the youth movement of the time, Human Traffic remains a useful insight into British social and cultural issues.

Sleep Furiously (2008)

Set in a small farming community in the rural hills of mid-Wales, Gideon Koppel’s documentary Sleep Furiously is a tender elegy for the way of life of the people that live there. The landscape and population of this rural enclave is undergoing rapid and frenzied change and the languid pace of the inhabitants’ way of life begins to disappear under the guise of modernisation and industrialisation. Specific portraits of individuals and relationships create a real sense of connection and community, linking the audience to the villagers’ history and culture. Breathtaking cinematography also makes the rolling hills and winding valleys of the Welsh countryside look idyllic. A low key but beautiful memento of a fading slice of Welsh culture and society.

Patagonia (2010)

Shot largely in the native Welsh tongue, Patagonia was put forward as the British nomination for Best Foreign Language film at the 84th Academy Awards. Directed by Welshman Marc Evans, events centre on Cardiff couple Rhys (Matthew Gravelle) and Gwen (Nia Roberts); a struggling photographer and actress who travel to Patagonia in the hopes of reigniting their dwindling romance. Meanwhile an Argentinian mother and son are planning the opposite journey. The film explores a mysterious and mostly unknown period of Welsh history in the latter part of the 19th century when Patagonia was the destination for a large number of Welsh immigrants. A meditation on the connection between national identity, heritage, and roots, the juxtaposition of the two stories gives Evans’ themes a universal appeal.