BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 1 by Helen M Jerome

BFI 61st London Film Festival Part 1 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.

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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 WarsMark 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?

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Like many other movie-makers, David Fincher (Se7en) has moved over to flexing his muscles on episodic TV. Mindhunter is the compelling result, seen at the festival in a two-chunk hit, but you can binge on the entire 10-part first season if you have Netflix. Our hero is based on a real, ground-breaking profiler played by Jonathan Groff (who first caught the eye in the original Broadway production of Hamilton). Spookily, Groff is the spitting image of France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, which provides an extra jolt to the viewer. The series is beautifully filmed and acted, the plot slowly evolving under Fincher’s unflinching, watchful eye. There’s a constant, queasy ambiguity between the good cops, who are trigger-happy, and the pure-evil ‘sequence killers’ (later renamed serial killers) who they must befriend to gain insight to help solve existing crimes and prevent some future ones. And we can even give ourselves a pat on our British backs, as the whole enterprise was developed by playwright, Joe Penhall (Blue/Orange).

Aaron Katz’s knowing, millennial thriller Gemini initially seems to opt for style over substance, with its flashy interiors, gleaming vehicles and glossy characters reminiscent of old school music videos. However, as this quirky-core, or ‘mumble-noir’, mystery develops across Los Angeles, it becomes more beguiling. There’s a stalker, everyone seems suspicious, the Korea-town karaoke scenes hark back to classic ‘live by night’ noir, and Zoe Kravitz is fab as The Big Star with no privacy. And there are Big Twists… so give it a chance.

Directed by Esholm Nelms and Ian Nelms, Small Town Crime stars John Hawkes (also in Three Billboards) as a drunk ex-cop who finds a body on the side of the road and decides to investigate. The tone veers from tongue-in-cheek high comedy to awfully dark drama, and is given greater depth by co-star Octavia Spencer (who also exec-produces). Basically, it’s Bogie with a drink problem.

Columbus, directed by Kogonada, is not so much a culture clash as a culture convergence movie – the cultures being American and Korean. Set in Columbus, Indiana itself, it unfolds at a leisurely pace, presenting lots of vignettes of ordinary and privileged lives, as each of the characters, including those played by Parker Posey, Michelle Forbes (brilliant as the meth-addict mom) and John Cho, seem to be searching for something.

A couple of films that promise so much more than they manage to deliver are Person To Person and The Meyerowitz Stories. When you look at their respective casts, you might sit back and prepare for a treat. Dustin Guy-Defa’s Person to Person stars the likes of Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson, but as it satirises verbose, Woody Allen-style, Brooklynite characters and we overhear snatches of interconnected conversations, you wonder whether they could have stretched to look further than such easy targets as millennials in one zipcode. Is this kind of navel-gazing, post-slacker mumblecore movie almost beyond satire now?

Noah Baumbach’s Meyerowitz stars – deep breath – Dustin Hoffman as a grouchy sculptor, with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel as his variously troubled offspring, and Emma Thompson (criminally underused in a Mia Farrow-type role) as his arty fourth wife. Again, it feels like so much navel-gazing as the family members negotiate 21st Century existential crises, and argue furiously among themselves, almost as a recreational activity. Did not float my boat on any level.

There was, however, one English language drama that was even worse on every level, called 1%, and telling a familiar story of rivalry, this time between motorcycle gang members in Australia. The over-the-top acting goes all the way up to eleven, and stays there, with female roles so clichéd it’s embarrassing. Avoid.

A couple of pitch-black, British comedy dramas that really do work are The Party and Funny Cow. Sally Potter’s The Party is filmed completely in black and white, set in North London, and took only a dozen days to shoot. The premise is an ambitious New Labour MP, Kristin Scott Thomas celebrating her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet by throwing a party at home for herself, her old school socialist husband Timothy Spall, and their closest friends: warring couple Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz, high-functioning addict Cillian Murphy, and a further couple, Emily Mortimer and the marvellous Cherry Jones. All the action is confined to the front room, kitchen, bathroom and courtyard – with crucial opening and closing scenes at the front door – so the claustrophobia is heightened, and the beautiful unflinching monochrome filming accentuates the noir feel, as enmities, twists and revelations pile up in real time. We know cuckolded Murphy is equipped with plenty of coke and a pistol, we see that the splendidly sharp-tongued Clarkson is really the one in charge, everyone else putty in her hands. Potter is satirising everyone, their ascent of the greasy pole, their middle class paranoia and mindset, their hypocrisy… and there’s a corker of an ending.

Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow had me from minute one, as it stars the peerless Maxine Peake, who is at her, er, peak as a stand-up comedian with a foul mouth, ready wit, and skyrocketing career on the working men’s club circuit. We start, though, by glimpsing her dreadful childhood, her use of humour to beat the bullies, and the lack of maternal support. There’s quality through the cast, as her co-stars are Stephen Graham as a serial abuser, Kevin Eldon as her agent, Alun Armstrong as a depressive comic, and Paddy Considine as her love interest, plus there are tiny cameos from the likes of Vic Reeves, Richard Hawley, John Bishop, and even Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners). Recommended.

Paddy Considine also stars in Journeyman, which is the second feature he’s directed, after the incredible Tyrannosaur. This is raw and brutal in a different way, with Considine as a champion middleweight boxer who’s seen better days – kind of an Ageing Bull, and who is up against a trash-talking young pretender. But this ain’t Rocky, and a head injury sustained by Considine during his victorious bout floors him after the fight, and his capacity, his support team and his life start to ebb away from him. Considine made the superb decision to cast Jodie Whittaker (in one of her final pre-Doctor Who roles) as his resourceful, loyal wife, and they stand toe to toe throughout. There are flickers of violence and internal rage amidst the remnants of recovery, but what Considine also manages to do, unsentimentally, is draw attention to the genuine issue of head injuries across sport in general and boxing in particular.

In Dominic Cooke’s faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella, On Chesil Beach, we again see Saoirse Ronan boss the screen, this time with a cut-glass English accent, and built-in repression, as Florence, the highly-strung violinist who puts all her passion into her music. She falls in love quickly and hopelessly with Billy Howle’s Edward, who yearns for something better as he witnesses the chasm between his class and hers, emphasised by their varying family backgrounds (Emily Watson and Anne-Marie Duff as their respective mothers are both terrific). So marriage seems a welcome and inevitable escape for both. But it’s only when they reach their wedding night that the ill-prepared couple finally explore their love physically, and try to overcome their awkwardness. Beautifully shot and acted, this is perhaps an overdue balance to all the movies that make young love look like a walk in the park.

Dark River is Clio Barnard’s highly-anticipated follow-up to The Selfish Giant and much-praised The Arbor. But it ploughs another furrow, set in the dark satanic hills around a neglected Yorkshire farm, to which the troubled Ruth Wilson must return now that her abusive father (Sean Bean) has finally died. Wilson is terrific, the landscape looks staggeringly beautiful, and she is haunted by her past, and her alcoholic brother, Joe (Mark Stanley) isn’t helping in any sense. There’s an almost Thomas Hardy-esque feel of bucolic nature being deceptively red in tooth and claw as she tries to tame the sheepdog and Joe, and save the family farm.

The most ambitious labour of love in the entire festival was Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobleta’s Loving Vincent, which manages to bring Van Gogh’s paintings to life through meticulous frame-by-frame animation of his brushstrokes and characters. Apparently this is the first fully-painted feature film, with an incredible 65,000 hand-painted frames, and it all came from an idea suggested by Welchman’s wife, who’d trained as a painter. And they worked with the Van Gogh museum for four years to bring this to fruition. The narrative explores a mystery, but it’s the execution of the film that’s the real story. After sifting through 5,000 applications from across the world, the filmmakers selected 100 painters to train in the specific technique, and keep doing the same oil paintings over and over, to produce the 12-frames-per-second needed. Yellow-jacketed Douglas Booth is the lynchpin of the story, linking all the characters as he tries to deliver a letter from the late Van Gogh to his brother, Theo. Naturally, Saoirse Ronan is here again, along with Jerome Flynn, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd and Poldark duo Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner, plus a host of other names, lending their voices and live-action so that their characters could then be painted. Interestingly, as an additional payment, the actors and others involved in the production were each allowed to choose a couple of the oil paintings to take home. What a souvenir!

If you saw Dogtooth or The Lobster, you won’t be fazed by Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest feature, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. But if you didn’t catch his previous work you should know that you’re in for a deliberately uncomfortable and boundary-crossing ride. After The Lobster, Colin Farrell is back for second helpings (channelling Father Dougal in his voice and Joaquin Phoenix in his beard), with Nicole Kidman as his wife in a screwed up relationship where their two perfect kids are coolly treated until all their highly-controlled lives veer off-track. The catalyst is the brilliantly creepy Barry Keoghan as a young man who befriends Farrell, then insinuates himself into the family. To call this dark is a huge understatement.

The real Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t just star in You Were Never Really Here. He inhabits the role of Joe, totally, almost dangerously, partly due to director Lynne Ramsay’s apocalyptic vision for his disturbed ex-vet character turned hired killer. He lives on the fringes of the fringes, tracking down child-sex-rings, coping with a disabled mother, and barely suppressing his own terrible childhood memories. The soundtrack is immense, pulsing and pushing the action through dark corridors and blood-soaked encounters in the absence of much dialogue. Restlessly seeking vengeance as the film careers towards the climax, this would crumble in the hands of lesser director-actor combos, but Ramsay and Phoenix rise to the challenge. You’ll probably need a drink afterwards.

COMING NEXT: Part Two of our London Film Festival 2017 round-up looks at the very best foreign-language movies from all across the globe… including some absolute corkers.


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