Journey’s End, based on the First World War novel and play by RC Sherriff, also explores the effects of war on men young and old, this time during the conflict itself, deep in the mudbound trenches. Director Saul Dibb brilliantly and viscerally takes us into the heart of the action, where PTSD-afflicted officers like Tom Sturridge just want to go home, and bright-eyed chaps like Asa Butterfield want excitement and imagined glory. In between are heavy-drinking characters like the idolised Captain Sam Clafin, offset by Paul Bettany’s Osborne, and their cook Stephen Graham. There’s no glory here, just blind loyalty and bravery, and endless dead bodies strewn around the battlefield and trenches.
Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete is a wistful, beautifully shot tale of Charley (Charlie Plummer), a 15-year-old lad who is left to his own devices and gravitates towards horses and their culture. Charley’s own father is a waste of space, so he hooks up with plain-talking grifter and horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), but mainly bonds with their racehorse, Lean on Pete, before eventually embarking on his own cross-country odyssey. There’s a fine balance between grit and romantic wanderlust at the heart of this, but it’s most notable for Plummer’s breakout turn, reminiscent of River Phoenix.
Horse culture also dominates The Rider (above-right), a quiet, unassuming film from Chloe Zhao, which uses real people in the main roles. Real-life father, son and autistic daughter (all non-actors) live on a remote ranch where the son pops painkillers after leaving his hospital bed, and constantly relives the rodeo incident where he was so badly injured. The plot gradually unfolds to reveal the family’s dependence on horse training and particularly rodeo riding to just make ends meet, while simultaneously showing other riders left injured, even paralysed by the dangerous pursuit. There’s a kind of magic in the stunning shots of open country and the characters’ existential lives, but we’re constantly grounded by the rodeo riders’ war stories, and reminded of the physical and mental scars they bear. And thanks to Zhao’s real-life casting, it almost feels like a documentary.
Stronger is another true-life story, focusing on the Boston Marathon bombing that killed, maimed and traumatised so many. Directed by David Gordon Green, this stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff, an average Joe working at Costco, who’s determined to support his ex-girlfriend as she nears the marathon finish line… before the bomb explodes and their lives are shattered. His legs have to be amputated, his noisy family and friends are numb with anger and grief, and when he IDs the bombers, he’s selected as a heroic figure for the city. But this is when the film becomes about something different, more challenging and interesting, as he doesn’t want to be a hero, plumbs the depths of despair, pushes away his girlfriend, and is left with only his eternally drunk mom (Miranda Richardson, unrecognisable and excellent). But is there any chance of redemption? Strong stuff.
Another couple of true tales star Jamie Bell, still best known for Billy Elliott. Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool focuses on the last days of Gloria Grahame, a fading Hollywood actress (played to perfection by Annette Bening) who is now reduced to performing in second-tier theatres outside London. In Liverpool, she reconnects with an old flame (Bell), and ends up staying with his (mainly) welcoming family of Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as his mum and dad, and Stephen Graham as his bitter brother with unforgivably curly perm. And there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos for Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber as Grahame’s mother and sister. Bell and Bening are perfectly matched in bitchy wit, and especially charming in their dance sequence, and onstage as Romeo and Juliet, and it’s all rather reminiscent of My Weekend With Marilyn, but far more credible.
Jamie Bell has a more macho, gruff military role as an SAS leader in 6 Days, the story of the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. Told from multiple points-of-view, in reconstruction style, director Toa Fraser builds the tension against the clock, like any decent thriller, but also makes you care about the characters, by making them more three-dimensional and showing their weaknesses and humanity. He’s helped by Bell’s performance, plus great turns from the likes of Mark Strong and the late Tim Pigott-Smith, and the use of genuine news footage for authenticity.
Roland Joffe’s The Forgiven casts towering duo Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and murderer Piet Blomfeld to dramatise the true story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that aimed to usher in reparation and forgiveness in post-apartheid South Africa. As Tutu tries to lighten the mood with positivity and jokes, we see the contrasting violence of Blomfeld’s existence in jail and flash back to his brutal childhood and the starting point for his crimes. We glimpse rare moments that challenge Tutu’s faith, and slivers of hope for Blomfeld, but at its core, this is a reconstruction of the intense conversations that took place between these two men just two decades ago.
Living a double life by acting the macho man with his mates and his girlfriend, yet hooking up at night with older men he’s met online, Frankie, the protagonist of Beach Rats, is a highly conflicted character. Played by young Brit, Harris Dickinson, Frankie is prickly and defensive, hard to love and lacking direction, while his father is bedridden with terminal cancer, his mother is just about managing, and his younger sister is at that difficult age. Yet director Eliza Hittman manages to suggest a vulnerability in Frankie, even as we see him weighed down by demons. Expect bigger things from both Hittman and Dickinson.
I wasn’t sure I’d make it through Brigsby Bear when I read the frankly crazy synopsis, but after the first five minutes I was hooked and laughing out loud. Here goes: a grown man, James (Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay) was snatched from his real parents as a child, and has been brought up in a bunker, away from the outside world, by cult leaders (including a fab cameo from Star Wars‘ Mark Hamill). Crucially, they’ve only let him watch one TV show, Brigsby Bear (which they’ve filmed themselves, just for him, in a makeshift studio). So when he’s released into the modern world and reunited with his real parents and sister, this could feel tonally awkward, but instead is utterly charming thanks to James’ bewildered naivety, unswerving loyalty to Brigsby, and unbridled enthusiasm for learning new things and making new friends. In fact, he’s so uncool, he becomes cool. Claire Danes plays it straight as a police psychologist trying to help this child stuck in a man’s body, as does Greg Kinnear as the helpful detective who’d rather be treading the boards. If you couldn’t get enough of Napoleon Dynamite, Son of Rambow or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you’ll love this blend of all three. Hilarious.
Downsizing is another high-concept satire from Alexander Payne, which deals with the issue of overcrowding on the planet by literally shrinking people to just six inches in height, and creating a mini metropolis for them to live in. As with Payne’s other films, other questions are posed about life, health, wealth and poverty, but crucially we laugh even as we suspend our disbelief while watching the awestruck Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau navigate their tiny houses, fall in love, and even travel to the other side of the world. This is Payne’s first brush with special effects, and makes for a delightful two-hour journey, which will hopefully encourage the director to continue engaging with his whimsical side.
Todd Haynes can’t be pinned down to one genre, but he does have a love of the past, particularly mid-20th Century. In Wonderstruck, he follows two parallel stories of deaf children, constantly shifting back and forth between 1977 and 1927. Their narratives are seemingly heading in different directions, led by the likes of the impressive Oakes Fegley and Haynes’ muse, Julianne Moore as a Lillian Gish-type silent movie star, until the loose threads knit together. We literally go behind the scenes at the museum, with Haynes’ fond nostalgia for childhood helping make this an enjoyable family drama (based on the children’s book by Brian Selznick), but it’s not in the same league as Carol or Far From Heaven.
Hard to go wrong with Debra Winger and Tracy Letts (also in Lady Bird) as your stars, and The Lovers doesn’t make a single misstep. Comic timing, wry dialogue, a plot much like that old Rupert Holmes’ song, Escape, and surprises flung around to confound the viewer make this a delightful grownup comedy. No spoilers to say that Winger and Letts are an older married couple going through a bad patch, with each taking a lover, but suddenly discovering that they’re attracted to each other, all over again… wondering if it’s possible to be unfaithful to their lovers. What will their conservative son and his girlfriend make of the ceasefire after their years of warring? Could Letts and Winger be the new Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine?
Go to page 3 for more movies from the BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 1!