Stream, Heav’nly Muse: Alternative Streaming Services in the UK

If you frequently read any UK newspaper’s film pages, you’ll find that it’s a rare week which does not include a feature about the streaming service Netflix: analysing its market position, its newest movies and TV shows, its release strategies and so on. And perhaps this is appropriate. in January, Radio Times reported that 117 million people subscribe to Netflix, making it by some margin the most popular service of its kind.

If you read these reports and think no more about it, you could come away with the impression that movie streaming services in the UK are entirely synonymous with just two names: Netflix, and Amazon Prime. This is not the case at all, especially because there have been a few recent developments in the quality and availability of alternative and perhaps better services for watching films online.

The first service worth mentioning  is Mubi. The website announced late in February that it would offer free subscriptions to film students around the world. And what an act of kindness that is, as Mubi is an absolute treat. Its selection of films is entirely unique, and it works unlike any other service of its type. For a start, there are only thirty films available to stream at any one time. A film will arrive on the website, remain there for thirty days, and then leave.

This has earned Mubi the reputation of being an online cinematheque  and not just because the films don’t spend a long time there, but because they are keenly and perceptively curated. There is always a season or a retrospective on the go. At the moment, the website is coming to the end of its ‘awards season’ programming, and is just beginning a more than month-long assortment of films directed by women, including Lynne Ramsay’s rarely seen Morvern Callar (2002), which alone is worth the subscription price.

There is also Filmstruck, brand new to the UK although it has been available in the US since 2016. Filmstruck boasts a mouth-watering collection drawn from disparate strands, including a fair sampling of films provided by the Criterion Collection. Some, including Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965) and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), are rarely available in the UK*. There is also a generous helping of pictures supplied by Curzon Artificial Eye; and an odd variety of world cinema in between, from George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940) to Claire Denis’s stunning Beau Travail (1999).

On a slightly disparaging note, the one thing to keep in mind while investigating Filmstruck is that the website’s current iteration is its earliest, and it’s currently a bit of a pain to navigate. The player often freezes up, it logs you off without warning, and its displays are jittery, making it difficult to see the titles that are part of a bundle. However, it’s only been available for a month, and with its delightful catalogue of films, it’s worth being patient.

Curzon Home Cinema is a different beast altogether. It more closely resembles Amazon Prime than either of our other two services. There’s no subscription. All you have to do is register, and then select an individual film to rent. Curzon has a prodigious treasury of work under its name, and a lot of effort goes into creating lists and collections in line with current releases.

Unfortunately, Curzon Home Cinema is shambolically poor. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it were a subscription service like Filmstruck. As occasionally obstreperous as the latter service is, when it works it’s a total joy. But with the former, you face the problem of renting a film and then being unable to actually watch it. It would be amazing to report nice things about a collection this good, but so far it shows itself up a waste of time, money, and films when the service is simply unusable.

The best has been saved until last.; step up BFI Player! A streaming service launched by the British Film Institute (BFI), the player is the most easily navigable and well-designed of these websites. More importantly, it houses an utterly astonishing offering of films. It’s split into three sections: Rental, Subscription, and Free.

The first section does exactly as Curzon Home Cinema does, except the player works without fail. There are over 1200 pictures ready to rent, often for a third of the price you would pay for a DVD. The subscription section is a dream; over 500 films available to watch immediately, from curated selections of the major works of Ozu, Godard, and Carl Theodor Dreyer to a constantly increasing library of world cinema. The free section is totally miscellaneous. From some of the earliest sights ever filmed to extended featurettes on work included in the player, it contains over 9000 entries, within which (you’ve been warned) it is very easy to get lost. The BFI Player has been, and will continue to be, an essential instrument in film education.

All of the subscription services mentioned include free, time-limited trials. So, it is worth taking that time to see which format suits you, which service has the greatest number of films you’re desperate to watch, and which website works best. Happy streaming!

Image: Netflix

*Yi Yi is now available on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection in the UK – read our review here.

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