Unsung Auteurs: Mike Newell

November 18, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: high profile but still under-celebrated Brit-born helmer Mike Newell.

“I naturally gravitate towards characters who get into the sort of trouble that everyday people will find because, I suppose, I’m a humanist,” Mike Newell told Venice Magazine in 1995. “Ordinary people deserve to have dramas of their own. You don’t necessarily have to have kings and queens and angels and devils at the centre of everything.”

Though British director Mike Newell has dabbled occasionally in fanciful cinematic fare (in fact, making some of the biggest films of all time), his heart has always remained with the everyday. His are characters slightly sullied by typical existence, weighed down by the nitty gritty of what it takes to be human. They have foibles and flaws, but often honest charm as well. From his earliest years, Newell had always been interested in stories and storytelling. His parents loved the theatre, and they passed that passion on to their son. “My parents were into amateur dramatics, which is a very strong thing in England,” Newell once said. “Every town of any size will have at least one company of amateurs that will put on six or seven plays a year, and very often have their own theatres. My parents are simply potty about theatre! It’s all they think about.”

Mike Newell on set.

Newell’s early introduction into the ways of the theatre eventually brought him to a different kind of storytelling. After a brief stint as a TV reporter, he moved into television drama in the mid-sixties, working behind the scenes on classic shows such as Coronation Street and The Fellows. From the grind of serial drama, Newell moved onto more respectable television plays and one-off dramas, and continued with all manner of small screen work throughout the seventies. Newell’s first minor break came when he directed the 1977 TV production of The Man In The Iron Mask starring Louis Jourdan, Ian Holm and Patrick McGoohan; a stylish and well crafted adventure, it was actually picked up for theatrical release in many countries.

After fifteen years in television, Mike Newell made his real big screen debut in 1980 with The Awakening, a hoary, old fashioned horror film based on a Bram Stoker story and starring Charlton Heston. The film didn’t make much of an impression, and neither did Newell’s far more impressive 1981 follow up Bad Blood. Shot in New Zealand, this largely forgotten drama tells the bloody true story of Stan Graham (a fine performance from Jack Thompson), an unhinged gun-nut who shoots and kills four policemen when they attempt to confiscate his collection of weapons, and is then the subject of a major manhunt when he flees into the wilderness.

Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson in Dance With A Stranger.

Newell returned to television for a time, but finally saw his first triumph as a big screen filmmaker in 1985 with the searing drama Dance With A Stranger, which announced exciting new talents Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson, and received rave reviews for its depiction of a romantic obsession gone horrifically wrong. Making a series of bold and cutting statements about Britain’s rigid class structure, this dark drama details the sad life and ugly death of Ruth Ellis (Richardson), a poor-born “good time girl” who was expediently executed after shooting David Blakely (Everett), the rich kid who had so cruelly loved and left her. “After Dance With A Stranger, all I got was doomed love stories, for years,” Newell has laughed of the film.

Newell continued to direct strong, character-based films in a minor key (Enchanted April, Into The West) in the UK, with one of the best being 1985’s The Good Father. Anthony Hopkins is at his best as an embittered, deeply conflicted misogynist divorcee who convinces his friend (Jim Broadbent) to sue for custody of his child after his wife leaves him for a woman. A rich commentary on post-feminism gender warfare, The Good Father is also a powerful human drama. Newell then detoured briefly to the US with the unlikely 1987 drama Amazing Grace And Chuck, which mixed family filmmaking with social comment in its story of a twelve-year-old boy who protests the existence of nuclear weapons by refusing to play baseball.

Andie McDowell & Hugh Grant in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

Newell delivered his first bona fide smash hit in 1994 with the delightfully honest Four Weddings And A Funeral, which now rates as a seminal British romantic comedy.With its sparkling script by Richard Curtis (who often receives more credit and recognition for the film than Newell does), and effortlessly charming lead performances from Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell, this delightful romantic comedy is filled with loveably flawed characters, tart dialogue and unforgettable moments. In short, it’s an absolutely essential piece of British cinema

The mammoth success of that film led Newell to Hollywood in earnest, where he continued to chart the lives of ordinary (but slightly more flamboyant) characters in the likes of the uneven  Pushing Tin and Mona Lisa Smile, and the far superior  1997 Mob drama Donnie Brasco, which still rates as one of Newell’s best efforts. Working way outside his comfort zone, the very British Mike Newell brought a fresh feel to the most American of genres with this Mafia thriller about an honest undercover cop (Johnny Depp) who hits a crisis of conscience when he begins to like and admire the veteran crook (Al Pacino) that he’s supposed to bust.

Mike Newell on the set of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

In 2005, Newell returned to England to direct Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, and instantly sought to put his own spin on the fourth installment in the hit film series. “I was very anxious to break the franchise out of this goody-two-shoes feel,” Newell said. “It’s my view that children are violent, dirty, corrupt anarchists…just adults-in-waiting basically.” With director David Yates taking such firm control of the series after Newell’s entry, Newell (like the other directors of the first films) is rarely discussed when it comes to Harry Potter.

After that special effects frenzy, Newell returned to more familiar ground with 2007’s Love In The Time Of Cholera, an adaptation of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “After Harry Potter, I wanted something completely different,” Newell has said. “I read the book again, and realised that aside from anything else, this was all about mortality. I just loved the breadth of how humane it was. It’s about real people, real lives, and long lives as well, which is original.”

Mike Newell on the set of The Prince Of Persia.

Newell, however, obviously enjoyed the spectacle of Harry Potter just as much as he did his ordinary heroes: his next film was The Prince Of Persia, a big budget adventure movie based on a popular video game, and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Though met with lukewarm box office and reviews, the film was a fine slab of major studio action movie-making, but now remains largely forgotten. “I really liked the story, I loved the idea of turning real people into a fable, and you have to say yes,” Newell on the release of the huge film. “I’ll make small films again, I very much hope.”

After The Prince Of Persia, Newell indeed kept his promise, returning to his British, character-based roots by next directing the rock-solid 2012 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and then the sweet, charming low key 2018 drama The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, based on the popular novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Newell hasn’t directed a film since, and according to the filmmaker himself, he might be getting disappointingly close to the end of his career. “I honestly don’t know,” Newell replied when asked about potential future projects back in 2018. “Things come bobbing down the stream. I have one more film in me. But I’m not going to waste it.”

Hopefully, we end up getting more than just one more film from the modest, genteel and curiously under-celebrated Mike Newell…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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