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How female filmmakers are bringing social realism back to British cinema


Back in the mid-1950s and 1960s, British cinema thrived on gritty, spirited filmmaking that exposed the social order of the country and deconstructed the everyday lives of the working class. Named ‘Kitchen sink realism’, the name referred to the domestic settings so many of these stories were set in, often focusing on angry young men who were disillusioned with modern society and the authority of their strict parents. 

Laying the realities of working-class Britain out for all to bare, such films were often imbued with the effects of contemporary social and political issues, exploring the grime of underfunded council estates and the apathetic ambitions of an ignored youth. Telling stories of homelessness, abortion and juvenile delinquency, the likes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Kes, faced reality head-on in an attempt to understand and change modern Britain. 

Inextricably tied to the earnest and cynical British cultural identity, this movement weaved itself into the national industry, rearing its head in the works of Mike Leigh, Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Even when British cinema worked to become more commercial at the turn of the new millennium, such stories remained defiant, with Shane Meadows picking up the mantle with This is England whilst the likes of Leigh and Loach continued to produce noble works of social realism. 

Nowadays, the kitchen sink of social realism is harder to find, with Meadows preferring the freedom of the small screen and Mike Leigh and Ken Loach winding down in the twilight of their careers. Ditched in modern cinema for more escapist feature films that aren’t so bleak, this loss is detrimental to British cinema as such films uphold such an important identity in the culture of the nation. Thankfully then, the movement has seen a revival in recent years, led by several female filmmakers leading a noble charge to infuse realism back into the British film industry. 

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Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay was one of the first British contemporary filmmakers to forge this path, making the coming of age story Ratcatcher in 1999, followed by the millennial fever dream Morvern Callar in 2002, showcasing a distinct style that questioned the existence of two young characters in an all-consuming world. Such was followed by the extraordinary work of Andrea Arnold in 2006 with Red Road and the Cannes award-winner Fish Tank three years later.

Whilst the outdated mode of Loach’s filmmaking has long put the audience off its own self-importance, the aforementioned films of Ramsay and Arnold helped to make social realism compelling again, putting the drama first and the realism second. Such isn’t to say these stories aren’t realistic, rather, they instil a sense of drama into relatable stories, allowing pertinent social issues to emanate from their existence rather than becoming their driving force. 

Throughout the 2010s, more female filmmakers followed suit, with Joanna Hogg releasing Archipelago, Clio Barnard emerging with The Selfish Giant in 2013 and Hope Dickson Leach following up in 2016 with The Levelling, with each film taking on a different aspect of modern British life. Uniform in style though innovative in their delivery, each of these films were snappy and urgent, encouraging conversation without lecturing an opinion. 

Whilst so many have used the movement as a stepping stone to bigger commercial projects in the past, these female filmmakers are instead working to help thrive this distinctly British movement on home soil. Andrea Arnold took to the realities of farm life with her remarkable documentary Cow, whilst Clio Barnard studies modern relationships with Ali and Ava and Joanna Hogg tackles feminine identity in The Souvenir. 

Morphing into something more modern, more dynamic and ultimately more consumable, the contemporary female movement of British social realism is radically changing national cinema with subtle magnitude.