Streaming: Ali & Ava and other great films set in Yorkshire

·4 min read

Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar are the middle-aged lovers defying familial prejudice and cultural barriers in Ali & Ava (arriving on major VOD platforms on Monday), but that’s only one of the romances unfolding in British director Clio Barnard’s gentle, sentimental film. More metaphorically, Ali & Ava extends Barnard’s ongoing devotion to the Yorkshire city of Bradford, not far from her own home town of Otley.

It’s her third film set in the once-booming beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution, and while she doesn’t over-romanticise Bradford’s mixture of Victorian grandeur and contemporary poverty, a palpable affection for its physical and social geography softens the edges of its realism. More so than in Barnard’s previous Bradford-set films, her exquisitely tough fable of childhood tragedy and trauma The Selfish Giant (Arrow) and her formally daring, semi-performed documentary The Arbor (BFI Player), a portrait of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar in which the authenticity of the location threads an experimental blend of performance and archival recording. Collectively they confirm Barnard as one of Britain’s great Yorkshire film-makers.

She’s in good company. There’s a wealth of landmark films set and shot in Yorkshire, beginning with the director to whom Barnard, among many others, owes an obvious debt. A Midlander himself, Ken Loach struck into the heart of working-class Yorkshire in 1969 with the Barnsley-set Kes (Apple TV), its heartbreaking story of childhood deprivation finding fleeting spiritual release in the natural world.

Before Loach, meanwhile, Yorkshire was a major stomping ground for the so-called Angry Young Men populating the midcentury revolution in British realist cinema. The former mining town of Wakefield served as the unforgiving backdrop for Lindsay’s 1963 stunner This Sporting Life (Amazon Prime), in which labour, lust and rugby leave their various scars on Richard Harris’s brooding hero. In the still-potent class-war drama Room at the Top (BFI Player), Laurence Harvey’s ambitious desk-jobber attempts to forget his factory-town roots by climbing any social ladder West Riding has to offer. Halifax and Bradford stood in for the film’s fictionalised Yorkshire towns; Bradford got to play itself, more vibrantly, in John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (Google Play), which mixed kitchen-sink grit with rousing flights of fancy, and made a star of working-class Hull lad Tom Courtenay.

But Yorkshire cinema is so much more than angry men and kitchen sinks: the regions rolling moors and misty atmospherics also lend themselves to a unique brand of British romanticism. Take Paweł Pawlikowski’s rapturous, sunstruck coming-of-age romance My Summer of Love (Google Play), which might not skimp on tough social realities in its story of two teenage girls falling in love across class lines, but also depicts the countryside (never more woozily gorgeous) as a place of magic, liberating possibilities. Francis Lee’s glorious God’s Own Country (Curzon) does something similar in its study of sheep farmers discovering themselves and each other on Yorkshire’s slopes, though it finds a different kind of warmth in the region’s stormy drear. Andrea Arnold’s radical reimagining of Wuthering Heights (Netflix), meanwhile, is as febrile with the county’s natural wildness – its changeable weather and surging wildflowers – as it is with Heathcliff and Cathy’s own unruly passion.

Finally, turning to younger subjects still, Yorkshire excited many a childhood imagination with Lionel Jeffries’s The Railway Children (Apple TV). Moved northwards by necessity, the London-born kids at its centre initially fixate on the nearby railway line as a way back to their past, but country life soon offers new revelations and adventures. And speaking of childhood classics, the region serves as the backdrop for one of Britain’s greatest animated films: Aardman’s riotous, ingenious Chicken Run (Netflix), which locates a whole world war in a local poultry farm. Yorkshire cinema has never been so epic.

Also new on streaming and DVD

The Audition (New Wave) A performance of laid-bare emotional intensity from the reliably fierce Nina Hoss gives an icy jolt to this simmering German psychodrama. As a dedicated violin teacher whose investment in a young, anxious student grows increasingly obsessive – at the expense of her own gifted son – she brings grounding credibility to potentially loopy plot turns.

Murina (Modern Films) Croatian film-maker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović won the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes last year, and deservedly so. Expertly milking tensions between a frustrated teenage girl, her oppressive father and the suave stranger who comes between them, this darkly sensual fusion of sunshine noir and coming-of-age tale has a cool tonal control that even turned the head of executive producer Martin Scorsese.

Days of the Bagnold Summer (Anti-Worlds) A somewhat different study of parent-teen conflict over the course of a sleepy summer, Simon Bird’s amiably shaggy British comedy comes belatedly to Blu-ray in a package as elaborate as the film is unassuming, with extras including three quirky shorts by Joff Winterhart, author of the graphic novel at the feature’s source.

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