The 2023 Cunard British Film Festival returns to Palace Cinemas next month with a packed program showcasing British filmmaking at its finest. Now in its 11th year, the festival opens November 1 or 2 in cities across Australia.

“There’s such a strong affinity between Australia and the UK, with a similar sensibility we understand,” says Kim Petalas, Palace Cinemas’ former head of programming, who established the festival more than a decade ago. “And I felt that with British films performing so well at the Australian box office, there was an opportunity to place the best of British cinema in a festival and showcase films that will be released well into the following year.”

Just last year close to 100,000 people attended, with that number expected to grow this year – especially considering the ripper program.

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Opening the festival is the Australian premiere of One Life, the film directorial debut of James Hawes (Black Mirror, Doctor Who*) starring Anthony Hopkins. The biographical drama follows the life of Sir Nicholas Winton, the British humanitarian who rescued 669 Jewish children whose lives were at risk in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

“I think the opening night film is one of the real standouts,” says Petalas. “It’s a film that you have a lump in your throat in certain scenes in a very beautiful way. It’s not a sad film, it’s an emotionally uplifting film. And it’s a film that really resonated with me.”

Another of his top picks this year is The Critic, directed by Anand Tucker and starring Ian McKellen and Gemma Arterton. A reimagining of Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call, the period thriller follows an actress in 1930s London who becomes embroiled in a web of blackmail, deceit and murder with a feared theatre critic. “It is a very clever film, and it’s a film that I think audiences are really going to embrace,” he says.

Also in the line-up is the final film by revered British filmmaker Ken Loach (Kes, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, I, Daniel Blake). Drama The Old Oak premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with a cast led by Loach’s long-time collaborator Dave Turner, who plays a publican struggling to hold on to his small-town pub as tensions rise after the arrival of Syrian asylum seekers.

“Ken Loach is such a political director who really [examines] human rights issues,” says Petalas. “And there’s a lot of relevance in what’s happening in the world today with The Old Oak.”

Another film that made a real impact on Petalas is writer-director Dionne Edwards’s Pretty Red Dress. Set in South London and featuring a soundtrack of Tina Turner hits, the poignant drama is an examination of masculinity, self-discovery and gender expression. “It’s a film that has got a real twist to it and it’s got great performances,” he says. “I was just desperate to have that film in this year’s festival.”

Audience members in Melbourne and Sydney will also have a chance to speak directly with one of the filmmakers from this year’s program. Marcus Markou, the director of The Wife and Her House Husband will be visiting the two cities for a series of Q&A sessions. The low-budget independent drama is an engaging examination of marriage and divorce.

“He’s a revelation because [he] self distributes his films in the UK, almost going direct to cinemas, and he’s been incredibly successful with one of his previous releases, Papadopoulos & Sons,” says Petalas. “He did the same thing with The Wife and Her House Husband, and he’s one of those filmmakers to look out for in the future.”

The festival isn’t just showing new British cinema – there will also be retrospective screenings of classic films such as period romance Howards End, stage and book adaptation The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Women in Love, starring the late Glenda Jackson in her Oscar-winning performance. The latter is an especially poignant choice for Petalas, because the festival line-up also includes The Great Escaper, starring Jackson in her final film performance. And as co-star Michael Caine just announced his retirement, it also makes the film his last acting gig.

The Cunard British Film Festival presented by Palace Cinemas runs from November 1 in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth and from November 2 in Brisbane, Canberra and Byron Bay, running until November 29 in all cities.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Palace Cinemas.