Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Winterbottom, Michael (1961-)


Main image of Winterbottom, Michael (1961-)

Michael Winterbottom's films represent the most striking and varied body of work of any British director to emerge from the late 20th century. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 29 March 1961, he studied English at Oxford; film and television courses followed at Bristol University and the Polytechnic of Central London. Initially he worked in the cutting rooms at Thames Television, graduating to direction with TV drama episodes and two documentaries about Ingmar Bergman. Winterbottom has regularly cited major European figures as influences - including Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Fran├žois Truffaut, and Bergman himself - and the settings and style of his own work displayed a continental slant from the beginning. The energetic comedy romance Forget About Me (ITV, 1990), second in a long line of collaborations with the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, focused on two Scots soldiers serving in West Germany, entangled with Hungarian girls during an excursion to Budapest. The equally lively Under the Sun (ITV, 1992), shot in Spain in a spirit of improvisation and serendipity, followed the fortunes of a shy backpacking girl, learning to fend for herself. Both TV films enjoyed festival exposure.

Other TV ventures pursued subjects and settings closer to home, though the hard gaze of Winterbottom's camera still ensured distinctive results, particularly in Family (BBC, 1994), a harrowing four-part series written by the novelist Roddy Doyle. The violent father and damaged children at the centre of the series found echoes in Winterbottom's later films, particularly Go Now (BBC, 1995), an energetic and compassionate TV drama about an ordinary working man (Robert Carlyle) fighting multiple sclerosis, and With or Without You (1999), a frisky romantic drama disturbed by mounting marital disharmony.

In 1994 Winterbottom formed Revolution Films with Andrew Eaton, his producer on Family; his first cinema feature, Butterfly Kiss, emerged the following year. Building on his adventurous television work, this spiky lesbian road movie written by Cottrell Boyce made few concessions to the commercial consensus. A sociopathic drifter with chains and chest bruises (Amanda Plummer) seduces a mousy service station employee (Saskia Reeves) and leads her into her world of random murder and casual violence. Winterbottom gets good visual mileage from the dreary geography of motorway tarmac, car parks and motels: some compensation for the over-episodic structure and fancy words about punishment and hell that ultimately lead nowhere. After this arresting debut, Winterbottom entered the prestige literary adaptation field with Jude (1996). Typically, he picked one of the bleakest possible properties, Thomas Hardy's novel of dashed hopes and illicit love. Sombre and stark in every way, it remains a compelling and underrated film, with a mesmerising performance from Kate Winslet as stonecutter Jude's vivacious cousin, made wan by the kicks of fate.

With typical eclectic flair, Winterbottom switched to a very different style, subject and period for Welcome to Sarajevo (1997). Shot on location, the emotional drama incorporates authentic news footage within its true story of a television reporter (played by Stephen Dillane) setting professional objectivity aside, determined to rescue an orphan child. The film is not afraid to be tart, though some star-struck casting and a script over-laden with irony muffle its final impact. Three offbeat romantic dramas followed: the overstrained I Want You (1998), a seaside drama of obsessive love with Rachel Weisz, filmed in Hastings; the Belfast-set With or Without You; and, most individual of all, Wonderland (1999), a sad family jigsaw puzzle built up from what at first seem scattered scenes about the lives of three sisters (Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker). With its restless, hand-held photography by Sean Bobbitt, drab settings (London, November, wet), and obsessive Michael Nyman score, the film presents a very different vision of London from the tourist views of its contemporaries Sliding Doors (US/UK, d. Peter Howitt, 1998) and Notting Hill (US/UK, d. Roger Michell, 1999).

Winterbottom collaborated again with Cottrell Boyce on The Claim, an adaptation of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, transposed to the Sierra Nevada, 24 Hour Party People, and the idiosyncratic futuristic drama Code 46. The Claim (UK/France/Canada, 2000) has more in common with Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller (US, 1971) than with even the most unorthodox heritage product. Impressive ice-bound visuals include the astonishing spectacle of a complete wooden house dragged uphill by horses, but characters in the script's games of love, power, revenge and redemption lack body, and the film proved too offbeat for mainstream audiences. 24 Hour Party People (2002) is a more populist affair, in loud and vivid pursuit of Manchester's punk rock explosion of the late 1970s and beyond, with comedian Steve Coogan well cast as the charismatic music promoter Tony Wilson. Casting proved less of an asset with ill-matched Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton in Code 46 (2003), though this blend of sci-fi and film noir set in an overcrowded future is never less than intriguing.

Among recent films, the Berlin Film Festival prizewinner In This World (2002) best demonstrates Winterbottom's distinctive gifts. Shot on Digital Video by a tiny crew, this involving documentary-style drama about two Afghan refugees travelling overland from Pakistan to seek asylum in England follows no commercial habits in looks, material or technique. One is not even particularly aware one is watching a British film, until the cool emotional temperature and lack of catharsis chills the final stages. His later DV venture, 9 Songs (2004), could almost have been deliberately mounted to exorcise British restraint: an hour-long diary of a passionate affair, intercut with rock concert footage, the film features an unusual degree of explicit sex, though with few rewards for the viewer. By contrast, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) is Winterbottom's most immediately enjoyable film - an exuberant, brilliantly inventive portrait of movie-making madness, spun round the struggles to make a viable film out of Laurence Sterne's unfilmable eighteenth-century comic novel.

Winterbottom's dizzyingly eclectic output can be loosely tied together by two general concerns. Like the French New Wave directors who helped sharpen his style, he is dedicated to 'people and places' films, largely created on location, exploring a wide range of geographical and social settings. Through all the variations in mood and technique, he seeks to combine social realism with stylistic experiments, bold photography, and expressive use of the widescreen shape. Though the artistic achievements have varied, and no film has enjoyed wide commercial success, in his determination to make idiosyncratic and innovative British films Winterbottom has established an enviable international reputation.

Atkinson, Michael, 'Cinema as Heart Attack', Film Comment, Jan/Feb. 1998, pp. 44-47
Epstein, Jan, 'Welcome to Sarajevo', Cinema Papers, March 1998, pp. 28-30, 45
Fennell, Nicky, 'Winter Wonderland', Film West, Feb. 2000, pp. 42-4
Sinyard, Neil and Melanie Williams, '"Living in A World That Did Not Want Them": Michael Winterbottom and the Unpopular British Cinema', Journal of Popular British Cinema 5, 2002, pp. 114-123

Geoff Brown and Pamela Church Gibson, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cock and Bull Story, A (2005)Cock and Bull Story, A (2005)

Surprisingly effective adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable novel

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Go Now (1995)Go Now (1995)

Touching romantic drama about a young man beset by MS

Thumbnail image of Love Lies Bleeding (1993)Love Lies Bleeding (1993)

Michael Winterbottom-directed drama about an IRA man on parole

Related collections

Related people and organisations