BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1 Review by Helen M Jerome

BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1 BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1: What a cornucopia of delights in this year’s London Film Festival. Rather remarkably there’s been a genuine move to get more female filmmakers than ever before showcased – and into all the awards shortlists too. And there are big name directors including Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach and Michael Winterbottom. Plus some very promising debuts. Mind you, there are a couple of avoid-at-all-costs movies in here too. So we’ll be giving you the inside info so you can give them a swerve.

Rather than overwhelm you with everything at once, we’ll split the coverage into two parts. Starting with those that really grabbed us and just wouldn’t let go, including one new (to us) filmmaker from Guatemala who knocked both our socks off with not just one, but two films. Plus the opening and closing prestige films, and then it’ll be those with promise and worth a look. And, as previously mentioned, those to skip.

Solid Gold Masterpieces

If your mark of an outstanding feature film is (like mine) one that packs a punch, lingers long in the memory, and immediately makes you want to see it again, then we have some treats to disclose. Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (above), Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sarah Gavron’s Rocks (which is neatly reminiscent of Sciamma’s Girlhood), Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece Marriage Story, post-war Russian drama Beanpole from Kantemir Balagov, David Michod’s stunning Aussie spin on the Henry V story in The King, and Taika Waititi’s broad wartime comedy (with topical undercurrents) Jojo Rabbit.

None of whom came from anything like the conventional routes or mainstream US or UK film industries. And these are just for starters.

Even now the imagery in La Llorona (above), from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, is so vivid, so haunting and chilling, and the acting and storytelling are so fully realised that it’s hard to believe that this is only his third full-length feature. Hugely atmospheric, with a sense of dread that builds throughout, this starts with an impending trial hanging over the rich, entitled family of a general implicated in the genocides of the early 1980s – and based on real events. The early court sequences are amazing, with the Mayan widows of the dead and disappeared wearing traditional dress, contrasting with the stiff suits on trial. Even as the general is found guilty, then the verdict controversially overturned, the family’s servants are leaving – all apart from one loyal maid, Alma, and a mysterious new, younger recruit. But are they really loyal or is revenge on the cards?

The casting is perfect, from the wary servants to the patrician faces of the aristocrats, and there’s a constant sense of ghosts from the past gathering amongst the crowds of protesters clamouring for justice outside. Further cementing Bustamante’s reputation and underlining his distinctive visual style, he had a second feature in the festival, Tremors.

With several of the same actors also appearing, this plunges straight into another family crisis afflicting the upper class, with the backdrop of an actual earthquake (literal tremors) while a gay affair sends metaphorical tremors across the family structure. Fed up with living a double life, the golden boy of the family (Don Pablo) throws it all away, and there are repercussions for his wife, children and parents – with the ‘flawless moral code’ of his employers also ensuring he’s fired. The one constant – and genuine moral core of the film – is their loyal maid, Rosa (as with La Llorona and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma).

Stirring up the hornet’s nest of passions, inevitably, is the influence of the evangelical church that pressures, stifles and persuades him. Two films that should propel Bustamante to the top table of Latin American filmmakers, alongside Cuaron.

BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1
I was already a fan of Celine Sciamma’s previous and very contemporary work, notably Girlhood, and intrigued to see how she’d tackle a potentially tricky period drama in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (above).

Of course, being the extraordinary director that she is, she passes with flying colours and delivers something so viscerally exciting and romantic and thrillingly modern that you almost forget it’s set on a remote island in the 18th Century. There have been other films where artist and subject fall in love, but this has the added pitfalls of the subject (played by Sciamma’s own muse, Adele Haenel) being observed without her knowledge, and Noemie Merlant’s female painter following in the footsteps (and ruined canvases) of those who have failed before. Long silences, intense conversations, meaningful gazes, clifftop walks and the aching void between the protagonists all ramp up the unbearable tension and release. And even as she casts her spell, Sciamma also manages to challenge the prescribed roles for women in historical dramas.

After Brick Lane and Suffragette, both about strong women fighting against the odds, maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to visualise Sarah Gavron making such a stunning – and multicultural – female coming-of-age film as Rocks. But this really is step up and a bit of a surprise, due in no small part to the casting of the central, titular character (Bukky Bakray), her loyal friends, and her younger, sparky brother (D’angelo Osei Kissiedu). Inspired by and channelling the energy of Sciamma’s Girlhood, Gavron embeds herself in this protected, intimate world of young teenage girls alternately looking out for and fighting each other, and builds something very special. Put this on your must-see list.

A couple of the festival films are already out on Netflix, notably Marriage Story and The King, but the collective experience of seeing them in a cinema, especially the epic scenes of Agincourt in the latter, makes me glad I didn’t wait for them to jump onto the small-screen streaming service. After the highs of Frances Ha and the lows of The Meyerowitz Stories, the odds were even on Noah Baumbach coming up with something as scintillating, emotionally rollercoastery and highly personal as Marriage Story, allegedly about the breakup of his relationship with Jennifer Jason Leigh. The narrative rolls back and then forward to reveal the unravelling of the enviable and apparently perfect marriage of the likeminded Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, she a successful actress and he an edgy off-Broadway theatre director. The exploration of the minutiae of their love kindling, exploding and then crashing and burning is merciless and quite bruising to witness, even for the audience (yes, I cried). What also elevates this from potential soap territory is the performances, with Johansson and Driver exceptional, but the support from their respective divorce lawyers, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and especially Laura Dern, all too convincing in their aggressive venality. Have a hankie handy.

BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1
The King (above) tells the familiar tale of King Henry V – as mined by Shakespeare and filmed by the likes of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh – but this breaks free of the bard’s words. An Aussie combination of director David Michod and producer Joel Edgerton (who also makes a fine Falstaff) bring a fresh perspective to the story, which is further elevated by the casting of the angelic Timothée Chalamet as Henry. His otherworldliness and his pacifism contrast with the grisliness of the conflict we see in widescreen and intimate detail. There’s a Last Supper-esque opening scene, a brutal, fully-armoured, hand-to-hand fight, and the gradual transformation of Henry into monarch throughout. Yes, it goes a bit Brexity in the middle section, warning of the dangers of standing alone – and we also discover the lies their course was based on. And yes, Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin has a risible Franglais accent (audience actually LOL-ed every time he opened his mouth). But you get the feeling of the weight of destiny hanging heavy on Henry’s shoulders, you see the logic of his journey from pacifist to warmonger, the pinpoint planning of their military tactics, and all the ensuing Agincourt battle scenes are amazing, a band of brothers in the endless muddy grey with sudden splashes of colour, all showing the horrific futility of war. Superb stuff.

Set in Leningrad in 1946, its infrastructure crushed and crumbling and its citizens barely getting by, Beanpole is the story of two young women, Beanpole and Masha, friends and wartime survivors with their own PTSD. Harrowing, haunting and with just a few chinks of light to illuminate their plight, Kantemir Balagov’s drama is based on real stories from interviews by Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich. Quite apart from the jaw-dropping performances of Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in the lead roles, this bleakly beautiful study of people just hanging on, clinging to dreams that are just out of reach, has a couple of crunching moments that you watch through your fingers, then you’re hopeless in its grasp and willing the key players to endure.

Jojo Rabbit is a very different wartime film, with director Taika Waititi going for high comedy, verging on satire, to reappraise the final days of the Third Reich in Germany. Admittedly a Marmite film for many, in the same vein as Mel Brooks’ The Producers, it goes for the jugular with gags, and will likely offend as many as it engages. We are led to believe that Hitler is as popular an idol as the Beatles became, with his own superfans (like 10-year-old Jojo) and ‘Hitlermania’ buoying him up, and Waititi boldly casts himself as a ‘jovial’ Fuhrer, who becomes Jojo’s imaginary friend. Roman Griffin Davis excels as the impressionable title character, with Scarlett Johansson shining as his mum, and Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson giving it their all as zany Hitler Youth group leaders. Of course, nothing is quite what it seems, and the plot twists away into another direction when Jojo has a conflicting moral choice to make. Plus it shows how easy it is to fall prey to propaganda. It’s not for everyone, of course. But I loved it and laughed throughout.

Grabbing The Headlines

BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1
As a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens and the satirical works of Armando Iannucci, especially The Thick Of It, I was already predisposed to the combination of the two in the festival’s opening film, The Personal History Of David Copperfield (above). Iannucci opts to go helter-skelter, pell-mell through the plot, and it does help to already be familiar with the narrative, with British stars coming thick and fast. Look, there’s Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Paul Whitehouse as Mr Peggotty, Daisy May Cooper (This Country) as Peggotty, Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber, Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, Gwendoline Christie as the ghastly Jane Murdstone, Morfydd Clark playing both David’s mother and his wife (how very Freudian), and the effervescent Dev Patel as David Copperfield himself. The director deliberately doesn’t turn away from eternal issues like the homeless in the streets, admitting he wants to celebrate what he thinks Britain is, but also its variety, while not shying away from the issues. And like Dickens he’s not embarrassed to want to entertain. He aims to capture the essence of the book, the language and modernity, and even did one draft with just Dickens’ dialogue before realising what to remove and what to keep. But Iannucci never wants to be so reverential that he wouldn’t change anything, so with the caveat that it really helps to know the plot, I’m going to fly my kite high for the delights of this film.

The closing, much-hyped Martin Scorsese epic, The Irishman certainly got everyone talking in hushed anticipation, and feels like a smart publicity coup for the Netflix studios that helped fund it. There’s been a lot of talk about the ageing and de-ageing techniques and prosthetics that allow actors of the calibre of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci to cover decades of action without missing a beat. But the real triumph is plunging the viewer straight into a world of flashy ties and hats, doo-wop and big-band music, Jimmy Hoffa fever, shopfronts and scams, crime scene photos and meat market stitch-ups. Holding their own against the quartet of Scorsese stars are Bobby Cannavale, our own Stephen Graham, and Sopranos and E Street band regular Little Steven Van Zandt as Al Martino. Based on a true story, dripping with nostalgia and casual violence, this 3½ hour long film sometimes feels like an early Scorsese tribute act, but maybe that was always the point.

Writer William Nicholson (perhaps best known for Shadowlands) makes his directorial debut with the starry breakup pic, Hope Gap, led by Bill Nighy at his most impenetrable and Annette Bening as his oblivious, doting wife, mysteriously playing it with an English accent, even though her own voice would have suited the role perfectly. He’s a teacher who relaxes by editing Wikipedia pages; she’s a proper poet. He has a wandering eye; she sees nothing. Josh O’Connor, best known for God’s Own Country and now as Charles in The Crown, is their disaffected son, trying to keep it – and them – together, even while his own life is a constant challenge. It almost feels like On Chesil Beach might have been if that couple had stayed together and grown apart later, and it’s almost too painful to witness their icy relationship dwindle into insignificance.

BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 1
The Aeronauts (above) feels like it was taken straight out of an adventure book, thrusting shy Victorian scientist Eddie Redmayne and bold stuntwoman Felicity Jones up into the skies in a hot air balloon, to jointly explore what makes the weather. It would have been easy for writer Jack Thorne and director Tom Harper to confect a romance out of the daring duo’s relationship, but they keep it professional and it feels stronger because of this. And Redmayne and Jones look so similar they almost seem like siblings by the end of their voyage. Charming.

It’s all about the ensemble in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a Cluedo-Christie-esque ‘country house’ thriller. When Christopher Plummer is found dead, detective Daniel Craig and his team are brought into investigate the mysterious dysfunctional family that leech off Plummer, and await the reading of his will. And what a family: Toni Colette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and their downtrodden maid, Ana de Armas. It almost feels like a Comic Strip mystery, so big are the caricatured characters, and the director admits he’s always wanted to “put a Hitchcock thriller engine in a whodunit.” Pure entertainment ensues, the cast excels and there are some knowing references to make it feel contemporary.

This seems to be the year for Shia LaBeouf projects, with The Peanut Butter Falcon grabbing at the heartstrings from the first minute. This unashamedly sentimental drama stars the amazing Zack Gottsagen as a twentysomething man with Down’s Syndrome who is confined to a care home for the aged, and keeps trying to escape. If you can swallow the idea of one of the care workers being Dakota Johnson, and LaBeouf being a rowdy-but-loveable troublemaker on the run, who both want to take Gottsagen under their wing, then you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the rose-tinted view of the American dream being the road to somewhere like Florida. But if you have an ounce of cynicism, you might find it a tad saccharine – Gottsagen’s impressive presence aside.

Utterly delightful in its richly colourful animation style and execution, gala film Bombay Rose was conceived and made by Gitanjali Rao, and focuses on a Romeo and Juliet couple of star-crossed young lovers, one Muslim and one Hindu. It took Rao two years to make, and she is justly proud of her epic work, taking in poverty, politics, myth, music and the vital, vibrant, migrant community. With magical realism swirling around the couple’s romantic odyssey through Mumbai, and setbacks thwarting them at every turn, it’s hard not to be swept up with their story. It’ll be fun to see what Rao does next.

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