For the best part of 35 years, Stephen Woolley has been a driving force in British film, responsible for bringing a dizzying array of films to the silver screen. His formative years were spent tearing tickets at the Screen On The Green in London before going on to own the celebrated Scala cinema. He subsequently formed Palace Video with Nik Powell, a partnership that delivered films as diverse as The Evil Dead and When Harry Met Sally to UK audiences, and it was in this period that his producing career really began to take off. A true champion of Brit cinema, 2017 has proved a very successful year for Woolley, with Their Finest proving a critical smash. His latest offering is a full-blooded adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s acclaimed novel, The Limehouse Golem, starring Bill Nighy, Douglas Booth and Olivia Cooke (available digitally on Christmas Day before arriving on Blu-ray and DVD on December 26th), a release that gives us the perfect opportunity to delve into Woolley’s past and call out some of the highlights from a career with too many to mention:
The Company Of Wolves (1984)
One of a number of pairings with long time creative partner Neil Jordan, The Company Of Wolves is a wonderful fairy tale cult movie that rivals 1981’s An American Werewolf In London for sheer special effects magnificence. The story focuses on a young woman who drifts into a nightmare-filled sleep populated with lycanthropic threats realised spectacularly long before CGI could help, but this is a curio that gives in a variety of ways, not least of which being Angela Lansbury’s winning performance as Granny and genre stalwart David Warner thrown into the mix for good measure. Co-written by Angela Carter, the film picked up four BAFTA Award nominations.
Mona Lisa (1986)
A genuine British classic, Mona Lisa once again sees Woolley partnered with Jordan to produce a grime-tinged love story that follows an ex-con recently released from prison (Bob Hoskins, delivering a hammer blow of a performance) who gets a job driving a high-class call girl (Cathy Tyson) from customer to customer. As his feelings for the hooker grow, his ability to deal with her situation collapses and what follows is a master class in emotional impotence and stultifying repression that elicits truly magnetic performances from everyone involved. Hoskins won a Golden Globe; Best Actor in Cannes; a BAFTA; and just missed out on the Oscar to Paul Newman for his role in the film.
The Crying Game (1992)
Although Woolley’s career was already flying by this point, The Crying Game was nevertheless something of a watershed moment and ahead of its time, with the film picking up an Oscar for best screenplay for Neil Jordan, as well as receiving five further nominations including a Producers Guild award and Best Picture nod with Woolley’s name against it. Ostensibly a thriller set against the backdrop of The Troubles in Ireland, the film is elevated by peerless performances from a talented cast that includes Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker and Miranda Richardson, although it’s perhaps equally well known for Jaye Davidson’s rug-pulling sexual curveball (clue – look out for the erroneous Adam’s apple…).
Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)
A film version of Anne Rice’s epic vampire saga had long been mooted, with Elton John, John Travolta and a host of other equally bizarre names circling the project for decades before Woolley and co arrived on the scene. Once Woolley (yep, with Jordan again) got things moving, however, it wasn’t plain sailing, with Rice taking out a full-page ad decrying the casting of Tom Cruise as her beloved vampire, Lestat. It was all change when the film came out, mind, with Rice retracting her statement and throwing her full support behind a performance from Cruise that shocked and surprised many – in a good way!
The End Of The Affair (1999)
Based on the melancholy novel of the same name by Graham Greene, The End Of the Affair sees Woolley delivering another study in repressed emotions as Julianne Moore (Oscar nominated for her troubles) and Ralph Fiennes rekindle a long dead extra marital affair in gloom-addled 1940s Britain. Stylistically beautiful and painfully reserved, The End of The Affair picked up an impressive 10 BAFTA nominations and is a surprisingly savage, difficult watch that lives squarely in the realm of tragedy much more than it does in romance, with Fiennes and Moore rarely better than they both are here. Not much of a date movie, though.
A man of many talents, 2005 saw Woolley turn his hand to directing – with lesser known but very well received biographical drama, Stoned, the result. A highly absorbing and accomplished tale of the demise of the Rolling Stones founder, Brian Jones, it took Woolley 10 years to get the film to the big screen – a true labour of love that paid off handsomely. For the camera-work, colour and montage sequences alone Stoned is worth seeing, but that’s not where its merits end. Whether a fan of the band or not, this is an interesting film full of directing techniques and skilful editing that blend into a heady mix of rock and roll excess which takes the viewer to the sixties and back through one of the most interesting stories of the time.
Made In Dagenham (2010)
Woolley teamed up with producer Elizabeth Karlsen and reunited with Bob Hoskins for something altogether more joyous than Mona Lisa in the form of a dramatisation of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant that saw female workers walk out in protest against sexual discrimination. This might not sound like a laugh-riot but with Sally Hawkins, Andrea Riseborough, Jaime Winston and Daniel Mays alongside Hoskins, you’re safely in classic Brit-com territory, something backed up by the recent musical version of the film starring Gemma Arteton that has taken the West End by storm.
There are enough curios in Woolley’s back catalogue to really give the impression that the man loves a bit of folklore. If The Company Of Wolves was his love letter to Red Riding Hood, and Interview With The Vampire was his slice of gothic romance, Byzantium seems to be him bringing folk tales bang up to date as Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan play two vampires holed up in a fading seaside town, only to ignite the ire of some ill-informed locals. Written by Moira Buffini based on her play and another film borne out of Woolley’s long-time partnership with Neil Jordan, Byzantium should be considered essential viewing for anyone brought up under the illusion that Twilight is how to make a modern vampire movie.
A visual and emotional feast, Carol is based on the novel, ‘The Price of Salt’, by Patricia Highsmith, someone who has continued to deliver a rich vein of cinematic gold ever since 1951’s Strangers On A Train (with nuggets like The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January dropped in more recently along the way). Cate Blanchett stars as the society woman captivated by a younger shop girl in what was considered a racy text upon its original publication. That it was still considered daring as a mainstream release perhaps says more about modern mores than it should, but there’s no doubting this is another essential entry in Woolley’s back catalogue, and definitely one of the most beautiful. Teaming up with his producing partner Elizabeth Karlsen once again, Carol caught the eye of the Awards judges, earning nine BAFTA and six Oscar nominations.
The Limehouse Golem (2016)
All of which brings us to The Limehouse Golem. When one considers the themes of repression, folklore and sexuality that pepper Woolley’s career it’s not hard to see why he was attracted to Peter Ackroyd’s novel. Mixing real life historical figures (Karl Marx; music hall star Dan Leno) with pseudo-Ripper mythology, The Limehouse Golem still manages to throw in some pertinent comments on repressed sexuality through Bill Nighy’s gay policeman who must deal with whispering colleagues as much as he must track down the brutal titular killer. Adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman, this is a studied piece, as artful as it is horrifying, and featuring a cast playing against type to fantastic effect. A smog-filled London serves as the perfect backdrop and, with the film releasing on Blu-ray and DVD in time for some Boxing Day chills, The Limehouse Golem is a refreshing change to more traditional Christmas horror stories.
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The Limehouse Golem is available on digital platforms from December 25th and on Blu-ray and DVD from December 26th courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment