BFI 62nd London Film Festival Part 1: Hold onto your hats. We are mixing up our London Film Festival coverage this year, which also gives us the chance to pick out our favourites. Our extensive LFF 2018 preview got quite a few things right – also applauding the fact that loads of female filmmakers were included, especially in the first film competition – and rather gloriously, the main competition award was won by a female director, Sudabeh Mortezai, for her hard-hitting feature on sex-trafficking, Joy.
Anyway, we aren’t hanging around, but going straight in our top recommendations: the solid gold masterpieces that rightly dominated proceedings. Then we’ll see what’s left after that shakedown – letting you know which other films to seek out, and those to steer clear of (not many this year!)
The handful of features that really stood out came mainly from directors who started life outside the mainstream US and UK film industries. Roma from Alfonso Cuaron, The Favourite (top pic) from Yorgos Lanthimos, Sunset from Laszlo Nemes, and Burning from Lee Chang-dong will all linger long in the memory, and all demand to be seen on the big screen – plus the likes of Sorry To Bother You, from Boots Riley.
Roma (above) is Alfonso Cuaron’s Spanish-language follow-up to his smash hit, Gravity, and this is far more autobiographical, wrapping its narrative around his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, surrounded by strong women like his mother and grandmother, but especially the indigenous nanny/maid, Cleo, who looked after him and his siblings as children. I’ve been lucky enough to see this twice, and cried both times (and I challenge you to remain unmoved). Filmed in vivid, beautiful black and white, with astonishing use of sound design, we mainly witness the action from Cleo’s point of view. This includes her domestic chores, her brief romance, and trips into and out of the city… all while political unrest and violence play out in the background, and sometimes spill over into the foreground. Student protests, land seizures and oppression show what a remarkable time this was in Mexico, but at the end, it’s the portrayal of Cleo by Yalitza Aparicio that you’ll remember. And, as Cuaron advises, do try to watch this on the big screen.
Even if Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous comic drama, The Lobster, didn’t get its claws into you, you’ll still find it hard not to succumb to the charms of his latest idiosyncratic release, The Favourite. His first foray into period film-making, and shot on location at Hatfield House, amongst glorious tapestries and dark furniture, this makes Lanthimos’ trademark whip-pans, uncomfortable close-ups, and set-piece tableaux stand out even more. Marked by filthy, razor-sharp language, it’s a total joyride with juicy roles for Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, and another Lanthimos favourite, Rachel Weisz alongside Emma Stone as bitter rivals for the lonely monarch’s affections and political influence. Weisz is suitably spiky as markswoman Sarah, Stone is fabulous as the apparently innocent, but continually plotting Abigail, and Colman towers over the entire movie as the Queen pulled in different directions. There’s essence of Moll Flanders with a twist of Becky Sharp running throughout, with rabbits, horses, duck races and fruit fights peppering the 18th Century court romp. A must-see.
If you’ve seen Son Of Saul, Hungarian director László Nemes’ Academy-award-winning first feature, you’ll never be able to shake those images from your mind. Now he turns his attention back three decades, from the Second World War to the eve of the First, and specifically 1913, when Sunset is set. Once again, the painterly filming, framing and lighting of each scene is remarkable, and once again Nemes shoots much of the drama from behind the head of the fearless protagonist, Irisz (an intense performance from Juli Jakab, who is an Emma Watson lookalike). There’s mystery at the heart of the narrative concerning her missing brother, but we’re mainly swept along in the wake of Irisz’ discoveries about the appropriation of her family’s millinery empire, the fate of some women who worked there, and the sense of history shifting on its axis as the Austro-Hungarian Empire looks doomed. Irisz’ discoveries are ours, with the camera turning corners and going into dark, dodgy places when she does, a mix of excitement and trepidation buoying her on her journey. Abuse, opium addiction, flowing blood, and the heady sense of revolution in the air are accentuated by the hand-held camerawork. Masterly.
Crammed with McGuffins (is there an actual cat?) and based on an 11-page Haruki Murakami story, Lee Chang-Dong’s stylish thriller Burning fleshes out the original sparse narrative across two and a half hours. Full of existential ennui and darkness, humour and ambiguity, it also manages to reference Gatsby and Faulkner. In his first Korean-language feature, Steven Yeun is magnificent as the hard-to-read, but possibly deadly Ben, with Yoo Ah-in as the innocent, puppyish Jong-su and Jeon Jong-seo as his girlfriend, Hae-mi. Random clues and signifiers might help you pinpoint the plot twists – but don’t bank on it.
Fans of Barry Jenkins’ Academy award-winning movie, Moonlight should rush to his latest, If Beale Street Could Talk, which brings a classic James Baldwin story to the big screen. Initially wrapped up in warmth and domesticity, and pulling you in with its central romance between Tish and Fonny (the perfectly cast KiKi Layne and Stephan James), accompanied by a superb soundtrack, it’s not long until we see the everyday racism they experience in 1970s Harlem. Snobbery, colourism, high emotion and violence seep into and control their lives inside and outside their very different homes. But when one incident bubbles up and the seemingly inescapable hand of fate grabs and incarcerates Fonny, you wonder whether love really can conquer all, or if they’re mere pawns.
Outrageous from beginning to end, satirising capitalism and exposing racism in the same way Get Out used racism to underpin a horror story, Sorry To Bother You (above) is the jaw-dropping feature debut from Boots Riley. What’s more, it’s hilarious in its audacity, its pushing of the envelope in the visual and spoken gags throughout, and its casting against type. There’s something very Kafka-esque in our protagonist, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), working in telemarketing and living in a garage with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), both black and as Jason Isbell would put it, both “living in a white man’s world”. Surrounded by disgruntled colleagues and dysfunctional management, it’s obvious straight away that cold calling is not Cassius’ strong point, until his co-worker, Langston (a terrific cameo from Danny Glover) tells him to use his “white voice” on the phone. And it works! Cassius is suddenly elevated to the status of a “power caller”, and unashamed to stomp all over his pals who are protesting for better rights, as long as he rakes in the money. The filthy rich ultimate boss, Steve Lift (a role that Armie Hammer revels in), is a sleazeball who recognises a fellow traveller in Cassius, luring him into his world, incrementally chipping away at his moral reservations, until the end game is revealed. Amidst this satire on the selling off of America (and your soul) and employing expendable slave labour in the name of profit, Steven Yeun (again) and Jermaine Fowler also get to show off their comic acting chops. It’ll be fascinating to see what Boots Riley does next.
Best known for Twelve Years A Slave and Hunger, but determined not to be pigeon-holed, Steve McQueen has outmanoeuvred those plotting his career path by making a handbrake turn with his big budget, mainstream, crowd-pleasing thriller, Widows. Based on Lynda La Plante’s TV series, and written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, this was chosen to open the 2018 London Film Festival, and more than lived up to the billing. After an explosive beginning, the bereaved wives, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez (plus feisty Cynthia Erivo) are left with no option but to enter the dodgy world of heists their husbands frequented. There are twists aplenty as the gals clearly have fun, even as they encounter some of the most unpleasant and untrustworthy men imaginable, from corrupt politicians to cruel hitmen, played with relish by the likes of Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson and Daniel Kaluuya. Rather neatly, Ann Mitchell from the original Widows series, and Aussie icon Jacki Weaver get cameo roles, with Robert Duvall also effortlessly giving the enterprise authenticity.
Rounding off the festival was Jon S Baird’s Stan And Ollie (above), with Steve Coogan and John C Reilly (and much prosthetic work), playing the silent comedy gods Laurel and Hardy, from a Jeff Pope script. Focusing the action on the duo’s last tour of the UK theatre circuit, before dwindling audiences and with waning enthusiasm, the film works best when it stays just the right side of sentimentality, getting light and shade from the two marvellous actresses playing the long-suffering wives, Shirley Henderson and the scene-stealing Nina Arianda. There’s festering resentment between the comics, tempered by warmth and wit, but also an inherent sadness as they face the end of their careers.
With so many Netflix releases in the festival, the BBC decided to join the party by presenting the world premiere of their thriller series, The Little Drummer Girl. Stylishly directed by Park Chan-Wook of Oldboy and The Handmaiden fame, this utilises some of the finest actors around, including Florence Pugh as the pawn, and the superb duo of Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgard, across the huge sweep of John Le Carré’s original novel, combined with immaculate period detail, awful hairstyles, and costumes with swathes of suede, denim, scratchy fabrics and massive watches. Tremendous on the big screen, but still worth your attention as a boxset on iPlayer.
Adapted from Patrick De Witt’s highly-acclaimed novel, The Sisters Brothers (above) follows on from Jacques Audiard’s hard-hitting French language films, A Prophet, Rust And Bone, and Dheepan. Once again he uses top-notch actors, his main quartet of Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly as the brothers, along with Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, all immerse themselves in the peculiarities of the evolving Wild West, and the Gold Rush in 1851 Oregon. Linguistically rich, using modern idioms and a potent mix of idealism and easy violence, Audiard spreads the action across a wide canvas in a kind of Odyssey of the West, with familiar cowboy imagery and stunning landscapes around a cautionary tale of greed and loss, balanced by brotherly love. And look out for cameos from Rutger Hauer, Rebecca Root and Carol Kane.
There’s a huge responsibility for Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet playing real-life father and son, David and Nic Sheff – whose separate memoirs the emotional film Beautiful Boy is based on. And they meet the challenge head on, with admirable support from Maura Tierney as Karen, David’s long-suffering second wife, and Amy Ryan as his first wife and Nic’s mum. Director Felix van Groenigen skilfully shows how addiction can wreak havoc on a family – especially in this case, the father of the beautiful boy – and he’s also picked out a remarkable soundtrack, featuring 10 minutes of uninterrupted Henryk Gorecki towards the end.
HISTORICAL EPICS AND BIOPICS
The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself, so we know about Waterloo, yet no-one seems to have been aware of the story of Peterloo. Thankfully Mike Leigh has stepped up and made a definitive account of the 1819 people’s uprising and brutal, murderous crushing in Manchester, starring the likes of Maxine Peake, James Fleet and Neil Bell, with Rory Kinnear as a charismatic speaker. Political at its very core, it shows the timelessness of many of the issues 200 years back, from PTSD, unequal taxes and punishments, to religious righteousness and fear, and the growing divide between rich and poor. The citizens clamour for representation and voting rights in heated meetings, infiltrators and spies fire them up and hand them over, and both the oppressed and their oppressors claim Jesus is on their side, as the action builds to the climax of the protest on a stifling August day.
We’ve all seen countless First World War dramas, but the big difference in Peter Jackson’s film, They Shall Not Grow Old (above), is that he has fresh primary sources. We can now see incredibly rich 3D footage and stills, meticulously hand-colourised from the original black and white archive, with the words of those involved in the conflict brought to life alongside these visual revelations. You can hear their naïve, noble idealism and patriotism leading up to the dirty business of war, then the film switches to vivid colour after around 30 minutes, with overwhelming noise and explosions shaking your very seat. We see captured Germans and incredibly young Tommies, all casualties of conflict, with Jackson’s light but very personal touch revealing the relentless horror of war and its aftermath, when they must return to civilian life.
Previously known for his documentaries, Matthew Heineman has now moved into drama with A Private War, starring Rosamund Pike as feisty, focused war correspondent Marie Colvin, who went where angels fear to tread. Apparently Pike studied countless YouTube clips and stills to make the late Colvin’s gestures, body language, hunched stance and gait second nature, so much so that she was 1.5cm shorter by the end of filming. Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci and Tom Hollander are marvellous foils for Pike’s spiky portrayal of Colvin across the clear, well-told narrative. Authenticity is key for Heineman, and he sought out the actual civilians who’d been affected by conflicts to play themselves in key scenes, also managing to push back against the current “enemy of the people” narrative being spun against the media by the right wing around the world. But in the end this is very much Pike’s and Colvin’s film.
Flipping back three decades, director Jason Reitman tells the story of the rise and equally sudden fall of US presidential hopeful Gary Hart in The Front Runner (above), with all the action occurring during his pivotal 1988 campaign. Hart is played with big hair and charisma by Hugh Jackman, pushed by his campaign team as the squeaky clean family man. Yet nagging doubts remain about his fidelity, and the chickens come home to roost when he’s caught out, and four weeks later he’s toast. We’ve been spoiled by fast-moving, dialogue-heavy dramas like The West Wing, and this doesn’t quite match Sorkin’s classic series. But there’s still much to admire here, not just from Jackman’s unflashy portrayal of Hart, but also Vera Farmiga as his long-suffering wife, and JK Simmons as his campaign manager, and you’re left wondering if he might have been the best US President they never had…
Political defection and ballet are pulled together in The White Crow, the biopic of young dancer, Rudolph Nureyev, directed by Ralph Fiennes, with measured screenplay by David Hare and shot using 1960s colours, with monochrome flashbacks for his childhood. There’s a remarkable debut from Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev, combining the arrogance of genius with rock star swagger, as the eternal outsider finds his cultural and political awakening in Paris. And Fiennes casts himself as Pushkin, the dance teacher who can’t quite let his protégée go.
Two films with duelling duos from the literary world made their UK debuts at the festival. Keira Knightley plays French literary legend Colette, opposite Dominic West as her Svengali-like husband, Willy, the bon viveur who took credit, plus all the acclaim and money, for her work. Directed by Wes Westmoreland, this is surprisingly very funny – at times actually LOL funny – and West even manages to make Willy sufficiently genial for us to not quite detest him. Described by Knightley as a love letter to her writer mother, and shot almost exclusively in Budapest (pretending to be late 19th Century Paris), it’s crammed with the cream of British actors, including the ubiquitous Fiona Shaw, the fabulous Denise Gough as Missy, and Eleanor Tomlinson as a racy American in Paris.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the true story of 1990s literary “legend”, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) with Richard E Grant as her drunken sidekick and partner in crime, Jack. Together they forge literary correspondence to sell to bookshops and dealers, while drinking the New York bars dry. Co-written by Nicole Holofcener and directed by Marielle Heller, this has sadness and loneliness at its heart, and allows McCarthy to show she’s got many more strings to her bow, as she becomes Lee Israel. An old school caper crime film where you’re rooting for the “bad guys”, and I for one would love to see Grant and McCarthy team up again.
Go to Page 2 for more from my look at the BFI 62nd London Film Festival…