Not content with starring in festival opener, A United Kingdom, David Oyelowo plays another inspirational character in Queen of Katwe, one of the festival’s two chess features. This is the story of an amazing young Ugandan chess player born into poverty, but raised by a fiercely stubborn mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and trained by ‘coach’ Oyelowo, alongside his teacher wife. Every part is perfectly cast, and the competitive streak that takes over the chess queen, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), is intoxicating and uplifting to behold. Stick around for the end titles too. One to check, mate.
Executive Producer Martin Scorsese calls this ‘the greatest story never told’, and he may be right. This is Bleed For This, a true-life boxing biopic starring Miles Teller – who previously rocked our world in Whiplash – as world champion fighter Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza. Surrounded by an dodgy entourage who wouldn’t look out of place in The Sopranos, and a family that smothers him, Paz is drifting into irrelevance until he gets a new trainer (Aaron Eckhart with truly bad hair). Director Ben Younger and his crew evoke the gaudy 1980s perfectly, with big glasses, loud fashion and lots of man-made fabric ready to combust, so when Paz makes his way to the top again, all flash cars, fast women and gambling, it all feels entirely in keeping with the era and his character. So far, so familiar. Then the plot makes a swerve, just like Paz, when his neck is broken in a car wreck. He’s written off by pretty much everyone, much like his vehicle, and told he may never walk again. Put in a HALO neck brace with no anaesthetic, Paz has only grit, determination and his trainer to keep him going. For he doesn’t just want to walk again, he wants to box his way back into the ring and towards another world title. Gripping and emotional, and filmed with crunching noise and lots of blood, this makes for a classic sports movie. And it’s remarkable to think that it’s all true.
Lower-key, real-life individuals, like whistleblower Edward Snowden also make great subjects, as Oliver Stone proves in Snowden. The director illustrates that the secret to keeping the pace and suspense moving when the story involves computers and hacking is to just keep on cutting from shot to shot, never lingering for long. And as Snowden himself, coolly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a contained, internalised character, Stone assigns the more extrovert, ‘action’ role to Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend, Lindsay. Ripped from the pages (and websites) of today, it’s a story that poses all sorts of questions about loyalty, privacy, bravery and transparency in the 21st Century – but is structured like a thriller, complete with chase.
Adapted from Sebastian Barry’s novel, and directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), The Secret Scripture contains all the ingredients of a buttoned-down, rural Irish drama. There’s deference to the church, hatred of the British – and especially any Irishman choosing to fight on their side in the Great War, and much diminished chances of happiness if you’re a young, independent woman. All that’s needed is for love and hope to be crushed by the claustrophobia and cruelty of the time and place. Rooney Mara is Rose, a girl who is trapped by convention, and banished to the wild outdoors, where she falls for flyer Jack Reynor (also in Free Fire), then has his child. Meanwhile local priest Theo James is entirely bewitched by Rose, and brutally adddresses his own passion by consigning her to an asylum. Everything is light or dark and every scene packs an emotional punch. The bonus is that we get the tale told in parallel through the letters and memories of Rose fifty years later, still in the same asylum, and beautifully played by Vanessa Redgrave.
Irish comedy, A Date For Mad Mary, is the polar opposite, one of the most enjoyable films of this or any festival year, and set resoundingly in the present. Debut director Darren Thornton and his screenwriter brother Colin Thornton based the story on Yasmine Akram‘s acclaimed one-woman play, but changed many key elements of the plot. The action starts with the remarkable Seana Kerslake as a bolshy young woman, Mary, newly released after a six-month stint inside. Her reputation precedes her, hence the ‘Mad’ prefix, but she must at least try be on her best behaviour, as her closest friend Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) is getting married, and Mary’s meant to be in charge of the arrangements. Worst of all, though, she needs a date for the wedding, so we see all her uncomfortable and entirely fruitless dates come to nought as she scrambles for someone acceptable, with the clock ticking. Can she pin down the preferred wedding photographer, Jess (Tara Lee), who’d rather be playing with her band that day? And by the end of this entirely lovely, funny, rude (and occasionally crude) gem of a film, will Mad Mary find love in a hopeless place? I highly recommend you find out.
Based on Lissa Evans’ fab novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, wartime Britcom Their Finest gives Gemma Arterton another chance to show her comedy chops, playing plucky Catrin. And it sees An Education’s Danish director Lone Scherfig turn in another perfect period piece. The plot follows a bunch of filmmakers doing their bit for the war effort, by churning out endless uplifting World War 2 propaganda films, close in tone and style to Mrs Miniver. Quite by accident, Catrin is enlisted as a scriptwriter, with zero experience, though she does possess a vivid imagination, steely determination, and a knack for storytelling. She also has an unreliable artist husband, while her head is turned by fellow wordsmith and full-time cynic, Sam Claflin. The actual film they’re crafting is the least important part of the film. The real riches are found in the supporting cast, from the likes of Bill Nighy (above-right with Gemma Arterton) as a past-his-best matinee idol, Eddie Marsan as his agent, Helen McCrory as Marsan’s sister, not to mention Jeremy Irons, Richard E Grant, and especially Rachael Stirling. One to just sit back and enjoy.
Mike Birbiglia is something of a standup god on the US comedy circuit – I’ve been lucky enough to see him three times now – and Don’t Think Twice is his much-anticipated movie debut as writer-director-actor. Generously, he gives many of the best lines to the rest of the ensemble cast in a story that’s perhaps close to his own heart. The ensemble are a bunch of budding comedy writers who constantly audition in the vain hope that they’ll be picked for a show that’s rather similar to Saturday Night Live. By day they have a variety of bicycle courier and waitress jobs, and by night they strut and fret for hours on stage as cult improv act, The Commune. Camaraderie galvanises them through adversity. until one of them gets the golden writing gig and everyone else seethes with jealousy. A promising debut and an insight into the business of improv, that’s reminiscent of Christopher Guest’s under-the-radar am-dram comedy, Waiting for Guffman.
Christopher Guest, himself, serves up another too-close-for-comfort comic ‘documentary’ in Mascots. This time, he’s getting under the skin and inside the ridiculous costumes of cheerleading characters as they arrive from all over the world for the 8th World Mascot Association Championships. The Guest gang are all here, from Jane Lynch and Fred Willard to Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Don Lake, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and, making a guest appearance, Christopher, himself, as Corky St Clair (from …Guffman). Bitchy, deluded, pumped and entirely lacking in self-awareness, all the competitors and judges are nevertheless a delight, with perhaps Chris O’Dowd (of The IT Crowd fame) as a drunken Clenched Fist ice hockey mascot, stealing the show – if not the contest.
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, the 19th Century Russian novel which inspired an opera, is now a low-budget, but highly dramatic film, Lady Macbeth, set in the North East of England. Starring the shockingly good Florence Pugh (above-right) as the young, anti-heroine, Katherine, and helmed by debut director William Oldroyd, each contained scene is shot in sombre hues with splashes of colour from Katherine’s gowns, much like a Vermeer painting. The plot is like a bloody version of Lady Chatterley crossed with Wuthering Heights, in which Katherine’s marriage of convenience is loveless and unconsummated, her moral compass is entirely absent, and she is driven purely by lust for her unpolished groom (Cosmo Jarvis). It feels like there’s nothing she won’t do to achieve her goals. Coolly and calmly acted and directed, this film feels like a precious and promising glimpse of things to come.
Go to page 3 for more films from the festival.