BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 1: Let me take you by the hand and lead you towards the films that are streets ahead of the rest, the ones you’ll need to track down, and the ones you should probably avoid. For the 2017 London Film Festival provides a fabulous insight into an incredible burst of creativity – with festival director Clare Stewart also managing to foreground many films with female directors, female stories and stars. A welcome move that also came just as the floodgates opened with revelations about male movie industry figures abusing their positions.
But let’s not hang about. It’s time for the red carpet, family-size popcorn, and comfy seats as we start with Part One of our overview of what’s coming soon to your multiplex or arthouse. We start with the English language features, mainly from the UK and US, from the massive juggernauts to the tiniest, sometimes crowdfunded, indie fare. Then in Part Two we’ll look at the best of the rest of the world’s output. And finally, Part Three will look at the superb documentaries on offer, as well as running down the DVDfever Awards for 2017. Remember, we do this to help you sort the wheat from the chaff, when you’re deciding which film you’ll fork out for!
Ready? Here we go…
There’s much kudos in being selected as the opening or closing night gala film, and this year they were chalk and cheese.
Breathe, directed by ‘Mr CGI’ Andy Serkis might just be The King’s Speech of 2017, with the same ingredients of very British stiff upper lip, and true triumph-against-adversity story, plus solid lead performances from Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy (The Crown). What unexpectedly drew Serkis to this project is that it’s the true story of his business partner, Jonathan Cavendish’s parents, Robin and Diana. And they made it, according to Serkis, with “seven weeks sorting the money, seven weeks of pre-production, and a seven week shoot”. William Nicholson‘s script, with ace support from Tom Hollander and Hugh Bonneville, make the tale move along briskly, as we witness the incredulity of everyone who sees Robin suddenly brought low by polio, but refusing to succumb to his disability. This is only the very recent past, and the film sheds light on how far we’ve come in our attitude to disability, while telling a classic love story.
The closing film, from Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, could not be further away in subject matter, focusing on a one-horse town with a frankly corrupt police force. Up steps bereaved mom Mildred (played by Frances McDormand channelling her landmark Fargo role, but with added cussing and violence). Mildred pays for signs on a neglected trio of billboards to challenge the cops to solve her daughter’s murder. At that point, police chief Woody Harrelson says, “looks like we got a war on our hands”, and the action heats up, with dialogue and characters really popping out, aided by a knockout soundtrack. The laughs come thick and fast, notably at the expense of Sam Rockwell‘s brilliantly dim cop, Dixon, although Mildred’s ex-husband, played by John Hawkes, and his scarily young new girlfriend (‘zoo girl’) also make easy targets. Across the board, this is one helluva strong ensemble cast, including Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters, Caleb Landry Jones, and Lucas Hedges, and they clearly have fun surfing the twisting, turning plot and firing off expletives. Deeply, darkly comic, and one of my absolute faves of the entire festival.
Lucas Hedges also stars in Greta Gerwig‘s wonderful Lady Bird, (the festival’s unbilled ‘Surprise Film’), but this is definitely, and unforgettably, Saoirse Ronan‘s film. We previously saw Ronan’s star quality in Brooklyn, and she now takes it up a notch as the titular Lady Bird, aka Christine, a young woman suffocated by her town (Sacramento), her Catholic school, her friends, and especially her mother, played by the extraordinary Laurie Metcalf, while her brow-beaten father (Tracy Letts) takes a back seat. This could have spiralled into melodrama, but instead Gerwig directs it for laughs, even as it nudges towards occasional poignancy. A real triumph for Gerwig, Ronan and Metcalf.
Another highly impressive lead performance from Sally Hawkins helps us suspend our disbelief for Guillermo del Toro‘s The Shape Of Water, as it melds Cold War paranoia, fear of the unknown, and monstrous passion. Hawkins plays the mute, naïve cleaner Elisa (channelling Amelie), who is intrigued and quickly enamoured by the sea creature brought into the futuristic US government lab where she and her pal (Octavia Spencer) work. Michael Shannon is menacing as Strickland, a cruel, frustrated, bullying agent, as obsessed with Elisa as he is with the creature; Michael Stuhlberg is a conflicted double agent intrigued by her connection with the creature; Richard Jenkins is Elisa’s gay neighbour – and she is the catalyst for all their actions. As expected with del Toro, there’s a generous helping of magical realism and symbolism swirling around the story, and the metaphor of the United States’ current attitude to and treatment of outsiders is pretty obvious, yet Hawkins’ charm somehow knits it all together. See if you can spot the references to Young Frankenstein and even The Breakfast Club too! And let’s start giving Hawkins more of these plum roles.
Talking of breakthroughs, Beast is writer-director Michael Pearce‘s promising debut feature, and its star Jessie Buckley is a revelation. Set on the Channel Islands, all windswept beaches, dark woods and stifling suburbs, it starts as a coming-of-age tale where Moll has just turned 21 and is looking for something fresh. Which is when charming poacher Pascal (Johnny Flynn) turns up, almost literally sweeping her off her feet with his old-fashioned, feral approach to life and love. But can she trust him when there’s a murderer on the loose, and she knows so little about him? Should she heed her slightly sleazy policeman brother, and their overprotective mum (Geraldine James)? There’s foreshadowing to help with clues in this atmospheric thriller, but mainly lots to admire in Buckley’s game-changing role as Moll.
Two young women have the pivotal roles in Cory Finley‘s Thoroughbreds, with the title alluding to horses and wealthy families. Part-social critique, part-thriller, the film shows an initial loathing, then building rapport between rich girl Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and poor girl Amanda (Olivia Cooke, fantastic), as they plot revenge on Lily’s unpleasant stepfather. Yes, there are echoes of Heavenly Creatures, which propelled Kate Winslet to stardom, so maybe Cooke can get a similar boost? It’s darkly comic and even shocking at times, helped by imaginative use of sound, which is often counter-intuitive and startling.
Another coming-of-age drama that starts in the darkness and emerges into the light is Stephen Cone‘s Princess Cyd, which succeeds because of Jessie Pinnick‘s complete credibility in the titular role. Cyd is a soccer-playing, non-reading 16-year-old who is sent to live with her blue-stocking, novelist aunt in Chicago. Both miss Cyd’s mom, who died when she was a child, and each dips into each other’s world, as they learn from their differences, in this sweet story of family and love.
Ingrid Goes West is director Matt Spicer‘s knowing portrait of two young women who live for social media and their image on it, and is played for laughs, like totally. Unhinged Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza, superb) heads to California to start afresh when her mother dies and she falls out with her few friends. Once she finds her prey, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), who is Instagram royalty, Ingrid homes in on her, stalking her in Single White Female-style, copying her look, eventually befriending Taylor and her man via some sneaky dognapping. They become fast friends, but can their idyllic, sun-kissed, polaroid-filtered days really last? Anyone hooked on social media will immediately recognise themselves and their friends throughout Spicer’s comedy – and might even question their hashtag addiction by the close of the film. #lovedit
You can settle back and enjoy Battle Of The Sexes, knowing it comes from the makers of Little Miss Sunshine (Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton), it stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell, and centres on a hot-button, real-life story of everyday sexism in pay and sport. There’s laughs aplenty, of course, but also genuine drama in the retelling of the 1973 tennis match between Women’s Number One, Billie Jean King (Stone), and washed-up male competitor Bobby Riggs (Carell). In the midst of this, happily-married BJK falls for another woman (Andrea Riseborough), and Riggs sees his own marriage hit the skids. There are juicy supporting roles for Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming too, but it’s really about feminism versus chauvinism, and both Stone and Carell ace it.
After shooting his last feature, Tangerine, on iPhones, Sean Baker‘s The Florida Project explores the untold story of America’s ‘hidden homeless’ by casting mainly non-actors in the central roles, and filming in a real motel in Orlando, ironically right next to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The leading name actor is Willem Dafoe, playing the motel manager with a heart of gold, but patience running thin, and we briefly see Caleb Landry Jones as his son. But pretty much every other part is filled by a non-professional, a local, or a kid. Baker cast Bria Vinaite as young, struggling mom, Halley, after seeing her posts on Instagram, and ensuring that she connected with the six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, who plays her daughter, Moonee. SPOILER ALERT: you’ll be seeing much more of Prince in years to come, because she is a bona fide, solid gold star. Baker reckons she’ll ascend from child to adult stardom just as Jodie Foster and Mickey Rooney did; she’s that good. Having chatted with her afterwards and met her feet-on-the-ground dad, I can confirm that she’s the real deal, with role models like Emma Watson and Daisy Ridley, and articulacy way beyond her years. So you’ve been warned. The film itself, with its hyper-real colours (production-designed by Baker’s sister) and genuine issue at its heart, is filled with summer joy, childhood friendship, with the edges of real poverty throughout, and a punch in the guts at the end.
Another film-maker on the rise is Dee Rees, who follows her Bessie Smith bio-pic with Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel about the post-war Deep South and its deep, racial divisions. The power of the movie comes from the pin-sharp casting of Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige in crucial roles, with the mix of stubborn, weak and proud menfolk revolving around and always coming back to them. Returning from Europe, two young soldiers (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund), one white, one black are greeted in very different ways, and both suffer disappointment and depression that binds them together (aided by alcohol), yet alienates them from their families. Last year we might have congratulated ourselves that we’ve come so far from the endemic racism of the bad old days, but in 2017 you might be forgiven for thinking we’re back there all over again. Timely.
Go to page 2 for more movies from the BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 1!