BFI 60th London Film Festival Part 1: Stroll down the red carpet, as we usher you into the best seats in the house for our exclusive, three-part round-up of the very best movies at the BFI 2016 London Film Festival. For the 60th festival there are some notable trends and themes, including dozens of true stories. After years of bubbling under, that old staple – the boxing movie, breaks through again in the shape of two dramatised biopics, with a sweaty boxing gym also a key location for a gritty Spanish thriller. Second theme? Chess. Yes, chess. Again in two true stories – one a documentary, one a drama – and both proving that you really can make a boardgame as tense to watch as it is to play. There are lots of strong female performances and directors around, too. Quite a treat.
We start, of course, with Part One of our exhaustive, sleep-deprived, yet highly-informative overview of what’s cooking for the year ahead. This is the bit where you’ll find all the Really Big Names and the Really Big Films from the US, UK and Ireland, plus Australasia – pretty much anything in the English language, in fact. You’ll also find the smaller, more indie fare here too. In Part Two, the best of the rest of the world will get its moment in the spotlight. And finally, Part Three will look at the cream of the documentaries on offer, and bring the much-coveted and entirely virtual DVDfever Awards for 2016.
Don’t spill your popcorn or your unfeasibly large beverage, but the lights are going down now, and the main feature is about to start. so here we go…
It’s an honour to be selected as the opening night gala film, and this time A United Kingdom, from director Amma Assante, plunges into the true tale of a love across the racial and class divide in post-war England and Africa. Clerical worker Rosamund Pike reluctantly joins her sister at a stuffy London party, where she claps eyes on gorgeous David Oyelowo, and their future together is sealed. They go dancing together and cannot be prised apart, despite her parents’ protestations. For he is black and she is white. and she even has to look up his homeland, Bechuanaland, on a map. The further complication is that he’s the future King, and must return. Every obstacle is put in their way to prevent them being there together, from red tape in London to unrest from his people, and hostility from both families. Assante helms with a light touch, and both Oyelowo and Pike are radiant and entirely credible in their roles. Spurned by everyone, with apartheid bubbling around them, the couple’s love and marriage is tested. but can they ever be accepted?
Festival favourite Ben Wheatley perhaps didn’t hit the heights of Sightseers with last year’s High-Rise.
So it says a lot about his still-rising reputation that his latest, Free Fire, closed the entire festival. If you imagine Reservoir Dogs set during the Troubles, with Irish militants buying weaponry from American gangsters in 1970s Boston, then you get a fair idea of its look and feel. But instead of Stealers Wheel as the soundtrack, here it’s John Denver playing on a tape deck in an old transit van. And much like the way The Fast Show only includes the punchlines of every sketch, here we get almost zero backstory. So with no exposition, we cut straight to the chase. Or in this case, the arms deal and the inevitable shootout, all in one big warehouse. “Fuck the small talk,” as one character says, “let’s buy some guns.”
The film is purely this final act played over an hour and a half. And, again, like The Fast Show, the inevitable gunfight goes on and on and on, mainly played for laughs. And as it’s a gun deal, there are lots of guns. Pretty much no-one dies straightaway; everyone dives for cover, rolls behind barrels, crates and pillars, drags themselves upstairs towards the one telephone, runs out of ammunition. Racial epithets and personal abuse fly around, characters even forget which side they’re on. The cast list is fantastic: Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley batting for Ireland, Brie Larson (Room) as the deal broker, and Armie Hammer and the superb Sharlto Copley as gangsters. Throw in Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor and you have a storming ensemble. In a digital world, it feels like Wheatley has gone analogue. And it feels rather good.
One of Wheatley’s graduates, Sightseers‘ star Alice Lowe, makes her highly promising directorial debut with the pitch black comedy Prevenge. Lowe herself takes the main role of a recently bereaved and heavily pregnant woman, Ruth, who is set on revenge. And the plot echoes the escalating violence and narrative arc of Sightseers. One by one, she confronts a pretty sleazy bunch of individuals, usually at their workplace, from pet shop owner to dodgy DJ to recruitment manager. Which leads to ‘scenes’, many of them grisly. Definitely one to watch.
Purely by coincidence, two of the best films at this year’s festival feature outstanding performances from Amy Adams. In Denis Villeneuve‘s thrilling drama Arrival, she’s a linguistics professor recruited (along with physicist Jeremy Renner) to communicate with extra-terrestrials, and interpret whether or not they’re a threat to the world, having simultaneously landed across several continents in a dozen locations. Based on Ted Chiang’s novel, Story of Your Life, it’s a tale that asks many questions. And thanks to film’s clever, circular structure, the luminous Adams (and the viewers) can only piece together a solution when she has vivid memories of the future. or is it the past?
In Tom Ford‘s initially fleshy, then stylish and shocking Nocturnal Animals, Adams plays a successful, but reclusive LA art gallery owner. She is suddenly thrust back into her own past when her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript of his novel, dedicated to her. As she reads it and reacts to the horrific, disturbing scenes it describes, we watch the novel’s action unfold, with Gyllenhaal undergoing the worst experience imaginable, along with a fictional wife and daughter who look uncannily like Adams and her daughter. But is it really their life that he’s writing about? Intense and magnetic as ever, Gyllenhaal is matched by the brilliant Michael Shannon as a weatherbeaten, dying cop who wants to help get justice, whatever it takes. The vast Texas skies and scapes feel threatening, with the Bernard Herrmann-esque music from Abel Korzeniowski adding to the Vertigo-era Hitchcock atmosphere, as we cut back and forth from Adams reading the book proof to seeing the action it describes. Definitely a major step up from Ford’s first film, A Single Man.
Kenneth Lonergan is better known as a playwright, but quietly gained many fans with his previous films, You Can Count On Me, and Margaret. Now he gets to stretch himself further, directing his own script in Manchester By The Sea, this time with Casey Affleck (in a career-best performance) as his muse. Filmed entirely on location in cold, windy Massachusetts, we are never far from Affleck as the tortured, easily-provoked outsider whose reputation goes before him. His family ties pull him back to the one place he doesn’t want to revisit (where his ex-wife, Michelle Williams resides). But we don’t learn how he ended up so alienated and raw, until one devastating passage finally reveals the moment when his world collapsed. Lonergan explores grief so thoroughly and unflinchingly, starting with the untimely death of Affleck’s brother, that it’s hard not to succumb.
Dev Patel will always be a festival favourite since starring in Slumdog Millionaire, and in director Garth Davis‘ Lion, he transports us to the sub-continent again in another true story. He plays a smart, young man who becomes separated from his family as a child (the irresistible Sunny Pawar), and flees dangerous characters and situations, like Oliver Twist crossed with Pilgrim’s Progress. Raised through his teens by loving, adoptive Aussie parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), he suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea of returning to his birthplace to track down his birth mother. Luckily he has a great set of mates, particularly his patient girlfriend Rooney Mara, who all recommend he use the internet and especially Google Earth to help him. And he becomes a man possessed, who gives up almost everything in his pursuit of his elusive past.
Go to page 2 for more films from the festival.