The Uncertain Kingdom is an ambitious, longform state-of-the-nation project - twenty short films by established and emerging British directors, presented in two volumes with a total running time five minutes shy of four hours - originally conceived on the assumption that Brexit would be the most significant event to unfold within the UK in the year 2020. Originally set for theatrical release back in April, its producers have now pivoted to streaming, a decision that may in fact work in the project's favour: you feel interested parties are simply far likelier to stage a four-hour short film festival while pubs, shops and other distractions are shuttered. Yet there are other serendipities to be chanced upon here, beyond the uncommonly high standard of the films themselves. Volume One, for example, kicks off with about as timely a short as anyone could have scheduled for release in the first week of June 2020. In the atmospheric Motherland, documentarist Ellen Evans tours Jamaica's abandoned colonial outposts and interviews a couple of Black Britons she finds there: one a Windrush veteran prevented from returning to the UK after attending a funeral, the other a young Mancunian seeking a fresh start after time in prison. In a little over ten minutes, Evans evokes all the conversations, all the disquiet polite British society has swept under the carpet for many decades; having seized our attention (and provided some necessary historical context), the programme then moves closer to home.
Acre Fall Between, directed by the adventurous actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Kelly + Victor), is an I Am Legend variant with stunning Irish landscape photography care of Eoin McLaughlin, centred on a husband and father (Mark O'Halloran) who returns home from business to discover his nearest and dearest have disappeared - not in some global extinction event, but due to a mysterious Relocation Act. Apply the allegory yourself, while being sure Priti Patel would have signed said act with a smile. Strong Is Better Than Angry has a rock-solid conceptual hook: this is Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling) asking women at a Scottish gym what makes them angry. Some laugh the question off; others formulate inspirational homilies; invariably, it's the BAME interviewees who've undergone the toughest experiences - though the director allows one such interviewee to channel some of that rage with the aid of a 3D printer.
Grit/Oyster is a thoroughly unexpected throwback to the type of out-there short you might have encountered on Channel 4 in the middle of the night circa 1986. Directors Rebecca Lloyd-Evans and Alex Fry revive the puckish spirit of Derek Jarman in this tale of a deity who falls to Earth, eliciting frank testimony from Londoners about ecstatic and traumatic sexual experiences. Not entirely sure how it connects to Brexit, but it unleashes the programme's most unabashedly sensual imagery: given this Government can't legislate what citizens get up to in the privacy of their own homes and fantasies (yet), sex may be one way of getting through this. Volume One's highpoint, though, is saved to last. Lanre Malaolu's The Conversation is another of the project's shorts to feel newly vital as we enter June 2020, using dance to open out a conversation between an interracial couple as it strays into the fraught areas of privilege and experience. For twelve minutes, we're watching what is literally a motion picture, one that forges a compelling narrative from the sight of people symbolically flinching, gasping for air and tying themselves in knots. You could enjoy the physical aspect alone, but Malaolu also has an idea of the bigger cartwheels that need turning if we're ever going to have an honest conversation about race - the conversations the men back in Motherland have apparently spent their whole lives waiting for.
Volume Two's opener Sucka Punch is youthful energy put to ingenious use, director Iggy LDN constructing an advert by which to counter the mock-woke branding now routinely pushed into our social-media eyelines - and then making us all think again. (If we are to save ourselves, critical thinking would seem to be an essential tool.) Jason Wingard's Pavement uses a stand-off between security guards and a homeless man welded to the concrete outside a corporate HQ to explore wider societal tensions: it's a mini Ace in the Hole, with some nifty VFX as the itinerant (Steve Evets, from Ken Loach's Looking for Eric) sinks even further into his plight. In Left Coast, the attentive documentarist Carol Salter (Almost Heaven) quietly corrects the project's vague London bias by travelling to the North West - an area statistically more likely to have voted Leave - where she sets up shop in one of the region's tellingly busy foodbanks. Here is the daily detail of the grim situation Loach and Paul Laverty outlined in I, Daniel Blake, people making do, scraping by; Salter was present in the run-up to one of last year's deferred No Deal deadlines, so an accompanying radio commentary jitters with talk of supermarket shortages. (A threat, you'll note, that has far from receded.) The Salter approach, as ever, is a model of generally unobtrusive, compassionate observation - she absolutely sees the goodness in the volunteers stepping in to provide where our powerbrokers have so comprehensively failed - but stats in the closing credits should fill us all with shame and anger that the scene she looks out on should ever have come to pass in a so-called developed nation.
David Proud's Verisimilitude offers a very specific viewpoint, sharp writing and an excellent cast in telling the tale of a perpetually passed-over disabled actress (Ruth Madeley, the sister from Years and Years) appointed to coach a posturing able-bodied pin-up cast in a Paralympian's biopic. As our heroine turns the relationship on its head, Proud's short demonstrates exactly that quality described by its title: you may emerge wondering - as folk once did about Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" - just who the fop at its centre was based on. The engaging docu-short What's in a Name? sees Runyararo Mapfumo ask various POCs to discuss their names, names that might well look unusual on a Home Counties school register. Its thesis is that these names might serve as an introduction to an entire culture, a world beyond personhood; that, though they often attract vitriol in the playground, they can be reclaimed - indeed, worn as a badge of honour and individuality - in later life. Runyararo, in case you were wondering, is the Shona word for peace: her film's more than alert to the ways her interviewees have gone about finding just that. Another useful tool, acceptance.
Whether consumed in one go or parcelled out over lockdown, the combined four hours provide a lot to take in and take away; collectively they may represent the long, hard think some of us had hoped this country would engage in at various points over the past five years. Which is not to say The Uncertain Kingdom is always an easy or consoling watch. The diversity of perspectives can feel a real boon while watching - if one short isn't working for you, there'll be something completely different along within minutes - but a headscrambler for anyone looking for a coherent overview of where we're at. The impression this viewer took away was of different tribes arguing their own corner, which may not be an inaccurate reflection of Britain, 2016-2020: division and incoherence will likely stand as the defining features of the Johnson years. Most of those corners are argued particularly well, however: even the middling-to-minor entries often land provocative points. If the United Kingdom is in a precarious position, the result of many years of misrule, its film industry appears from the evidence assembled here to be in far better shape, and may continue to be for some while, providing its filmmakers are eventually allowed to leave the house, and arts funding isn't wholly requisitioned by the state for the purposes of killing off more pensioners. You begin to see where the uncertainty comes from.
The Uncertain Kingdom is available to stream via Curzon and the BFI Player.