This article was originally published on Subtitled Online May 2013
It’s time for the second part of my countdown of my absolute favourite black comedies from Britain and Ireland (Here’s part 1). You’ll definitely laugh at them, but you might sometimes feel bad about it.
TRAINSPOTTING (UK, 1996)
Danny Boyle followed SHALLOW GRAVE with another cheery feature about heroin addiction in Scotland. It’s considered by many (and rightly so) to be his strongest film, with trippy visuals, an adrenaline-pounding dance soundtrack, and memorable turns from Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle as the main protagonist and antagonist respectively. The film deals with a dark and serious subject maturely, but also has a fair few laughs at the characters’ expense to balance out the gloom.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Renton’s hilariously sickening, increasingly surreal, suppository-related emergency trip to “the worst toilet in Scotland.” The bathroom he selects in desperation can almost be smelt through the screen, and McGregor’s reaction to having his face obscenely close to the nostril-offending porcelain as he tries to retrieve his precious suppositories is priceless.
WITHNAIL & I (UK, 1987)
WITHNAIL & I is the tale of two poor students (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) who escape their dreary life in London and take a miserable trip to a rainy Lake District. They bump into Withnail’s pervy thespian uncle Monty (the late great Richard Griffiths), and learn a bit about life, and its many drawbacks, along the way.
The film’s script, by the director Bruce Robinson, is deservedly seen as a highlight of ‘80s British cinema, and is full of odd, but insightful philosophical observations, and lots of creative swearing.
Darkest Comedy Moment: There’s a scene where Withnail, who, when at his lowest, downs lighter fuel whilst covered in goose fat to get drunk and keep warm at the same time. There’s also a dark debate about how best to dispatch a still-clucking chicken when the pair reach their less-than-ideal holiday destination, tired and hungry.
THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (UK, 1951)
One of the more light-hearted films on this list, but still with its fare share of black comic moments, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB is one of the most celebrated Ealing comedy films, winning an Academy Award for screenwriting. Ealing films often explored the darker aspects of human nature; in this case, the sin under scrutiny is greed.
We follow a bank clerk (a restrained Alec Guinness) in charge of gold bullion transfer, who teams up with a craftsman of metal souvenirs (Stanley Holloway) in order to smuggle and sell stolen gold in France. Their plan goes wrong to say the least, and the pair’s actions become increasingly dangerous and erratic as they try to correct their mistakes and evade capture.
Darkest Comedy Moment: There’s a particularly creepy scene where Holland and Pendlebury essentially stalk a schoolgirl, who has mistakenly purchased a miniature Eiffel Tower made of their stolen gold. They fully intend to rob the defenceless child but are foiled when she goes into a police exhibition and their task becomes considerably more challenging. The sight of two bumbling well-dressed men struggling to outsmart a child is a sinister, yet amusing one.
WILD BILL (UK, 2011)
Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut sees a wrong-doer (the criminally overlooked Charlie Creed-Miles) leave prison and attempt to go straight. This is no mean task when Bill discovers he has two sons to look after following their mother running out on them and the social services looming, in addition to the presence of his shady former associates who try and lure him back to a life of crime. Being a dad is the last thing Bill wants, and while he’s blackmailed to stay at first by his eldest, Dean (Will Poulter), he gradually makes a real connection with his sons.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Faced with being a responsible dad for the first time in his life, Bill has the unenviable task of making his residence liveable, and suitable (from the social services’ point of view) for raising children. One of the fouler tasks he is faced with is cleaning a toilet which appears to have never been mentioned in the same sentence as bleach, never mind come in contract with it.
IN BRUGES (UK, 2008)
Two Irish hitmen wait for new orders in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges after their previous job went awry. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) loves the quiet, and the culture, but it puts Ray (Colin Farrell) on edge.
The film won a Golden Globe for Farrell and a BAFTA for the bitterly funny, uniquely Irish script, and effectively kick-started writer-director Martin McDonagh’s Hollywood career, as seen in 2012’s big-name ensemble Seven Psychopaths.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Ken’s rather rapid descent from a tourist attraction at the film’s climax is unexpected, splattery and strangely amusing.
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (UK, 2008)
Mike Leigh’s HAPPY-GO-LUCKY features the sunniest personality on this list in Sally Hawkins’ Poppy, a primary school teacher who always, somewhat naively, looks on the bright side of life, often to the annoyance of those around her. Will Poppy ever grow up and begin to take life seriously?
Darkest Comedy Moment: The film keeps coming back to Poppy’s driving lessons under the dour instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Each lesson Poppy exasperates Scott either by taking shortcuts, making mistakes, or simply by being her cheery self. Finally, Scott snaps, launching into a psychotic tirade in the car. Not so much a comic moment, but a sudden, shocking change in tone in an otherwise pretty cheery film.
A FISH CALLED WANDA (UK, 1988)
John Cleese’s only real post-Python success is a wittily-scripted British comedy caper, with a standout and deranged performance from Kevin Kline.
We follow a criminal gang (Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin) and a put-upon lawyer (John Cleese) fighting a battle of wits (or lack of) over a haul of jewels stolen in a heist. It’s all a pretty silly affair, but is punctuated by a few moments of darkness.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Kline’s Otto torturing Michael Palin’s stammering Ken by eating his beloved pet tropical fish Wanda straight from the tank in front of his eyes. Ken’s repeated failed attempts to assassinate an old lady who witnessed the robbery, only to accidentally kill one of her yappy little dogs every time, is comedy gold.
IF… (UK, 1968)
IF… is about rebellion in a stuffy, oppressive English boarding school.
Malcolm McDowell, in his debut big-screen role, plays Mick, one of a gang of three unruly sixth formers who tire with their tradition-bound surroundings and particularly of the physical and mental abuse by the senior house whips. Their protest begins with disruption, then progresses to open rebellion, until, finally, in the film’s shocking finale, they take position on the roof of the school and mercilessly gun down their oppressors.
Lindsay Anderson’s film was understandably controversial on its release, capitalising on the anti-establishment movements of the late-60s, and it still packs a punch today.
Darkest Comedy Moment: It’s all pretty bleak and disturbing, but there are some witty and amusing exchanges between the three seniors. At one point, to alleviate boredom, they discuss how they would like to die, and upon Mick’s suggestion that he’d like a nail driven through his neck slowly, his friends burst into laughter at the fact that he bothered to specify the speed of the nail.
So that’s it! My list could have featured any number of alternatives (the work of Ealing Studios could comprise an entirely separate list on their own) but these are some of my favourites, any of which I would wholeheartedly recommend. SSP