BFI London Film Festival 2021 Part 1 by Helen M Jerome – The DVDfever Review

BFI London Film Festival 2021 BFI London Film Festival 2021 Part 1: Back to life. Back to normality. Well, almost. After a 90 per cent online festival in 2020, in 2021 the BFI opted to make it almost totally in-person, with no social distancing. I was just happy to be in the room(s) where it happened, on both sides of the River Thames, mainly in Leicester Square and at the NFT/BFI Southbank. It was a joy swapping heated and earnest opinions with fellow cinephiles, albeit behind the mask while in the queues for screenings. And after seeing around five dozen movies and mulling over each and every one of them since, I can now bring you the DVD Fever bumper round-up, with pointers on what to see and what to avoid at all costs.

In our now customary two-part review of the entire festival, I’ll start by focusing on most of the feature-length ‘fiction’ movies right here. Then in part two I’ll zoom in on the outstanding directorial debuts, plus animated features and documentaries – with the bonus of a handful of my worst picks from the fortnight. And, of course, the much-coveted DVDfever Awards.

BFI London Film Festival 2021

Both the opening and closing films this year were especially brutal. The black Spaghetti Western, The Harder They Fall (above) is the debut of Jeymes Samuel, who surely promises even bigger things. As Seal’s younger brother, I imagine his contacts list is pretty strong, and he definitely got a wish-list of talent to appear here. Standouts are our own Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, and Regina King as ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith, with Jonathan Majors as Nat Love and Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary. And you can’t go wrong with Delroy Lindo playing Bass Reeves, the real-life black lawman who has already featured in everything from Watchmen to Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The pumping, deliberately ahistorical modern soundtrack of big soul, reggae and hip-hop is reminiscent of Peaky Blinders’ playful use of music, and the often comic tone, huge energy, strong female characters, and bloody violence also seem a nod to TV’s Brummy gang. 

Better-known revenge tragedy, Macbeth, closed the festival in fine style, filmed in beautiful black and white, directed by Joel Coen and starring his other half, Frances McDormand, as a haunting, haunted Lady Macbeth. Her cinematic husband here, Denzel Washington, seems constantly teetering on the edge of inaction, with the galvanising force of McDormand pushing him onwards when he falters. Just below them in the pecking order come the remarkable, birdlike Kathryn Hunter playing all the Witches, Brendan Gleeson as Duncan, and Bertie Carvel as a Banquo with Denis Healey eyebrows. Stark locations and set design, extreme close-ups, and occasional shifting of Shakespeare’s text foreground unexpected parts of the narrative. But what keeps it all together is McDormand, conveying ambition, madness, passion and paranoia while delivering the bard’s speeches perfectly. Try to see it on the big screen if possible.

Intimate yet epic, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (top pic) comes from a novel by Thomas Savage, but is very much the director’s vision – and a totally satisfying, slow-burn treat. Casting is top-notch, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the casually cruel Phil Burbank, and his brother George played by Jesse Plemons, in what at first seems a straightforward Cain and Abel tale. The flies in the ointment are George’s new wife (Kirsten Dunst), and her delicate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who push the brothers further apart, which threatens to implode the family’s lucrative ranching business. Set a century ago, when rough hewn alpha males pushed aside anyone and any knotted feelings that got in their way, Campion cleverly weaves in strands of the plot and references to other claustrophobic cinematic studies of masculinity like Deliverance, with Phil even playing banjo, twisting in seething resentment, conflicting sexual desires, homoerotic horsemanship, and taking solace via the bottle. It’s only when you reach the end that you can unpick the strands and properly work out the plot and its climax. Fabulous stuff.

More usually associated with lighter fare like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright seems to be shifting to more grown-up subjects with Last Night in Soho, which certainly surpassed my expectations. Drenched in nostalgia and colour, the film dips back and forth from the present day to the swinging sixties, with Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy respectively foregrounded in each era. Last seen hiding in Jojo Rabbit, McKenzie is the country mouse moving from Cornwall to the big smoke – and to mix metaphors, she’s a fish out of water at fashion college. The soundtrack of Cilla Black and Petula Clark immediately transports you back through the decades, and casting faces of the era like Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, and Diana Rigg (in her final role) plunges you headlong into the dreamy glamour of that time – and its flipside, the reality of sleaze and vice.

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch feels hand-tooled for people like me, who adore the world of magazines, and love movies. Focusing on a title much like the New Yorker, this is structured in separate sections, much like those in a magazine, all run by laconic editor Bill Murray, and based in the town of Ennui, on the River Blasé. All very whimsical and charming, and very Wes Anderson. The plot – such as it is – is gossamer light, but the execution is delightful, a love letter to print media, filmed in colour, black and white and at times animated, featuring a veritable parade of stars, including Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Henry Winkler aka ‘The Fonz’, Frances McDormand, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, and Jeffrey Wright. Written to within an inch of its life, this will delight Wes addicts, but won’t win any new fans.

BFI London Film Festival 2021

What about those bubbling under, who have a singular vision, much like their auteur predecessors? One of the best is Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (above), the final instalment in his ‘Oslo Trilogy’, which is so strong that it works as a standalone. Much of its power comes from the Cannes-winning performance of Renate Reinsve as Julie, opposite her suitors, Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel, and Herbert Nordrum. There’s a real ebb and flow in Julie’s relationships and life, plus bags of comedy around her as she evolves and flowers as a person. She even encounters some “perfect” mansplaining, involving the word mansplaining actually being mansplained to her. There’s a matter-of-factness about the idea of cheating and life being messy and free, and Trier also tackles male privilege and cancel culture when Aksel’s old comic book creations are challenged. And that neatly – much like The French Dispatch – adds to the feeling that this is a collection of a dozen features or short stories, or even episodes, like Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Poignantly, Trier manages to touch on mortality, family, creative freedom and acceptance as his trilogy ends – and it’s all accompanied by a perfect soundtrack. A film I’ll definitely be returning to.

Anders Danielsen Lie also turns up in Mia Hansen-Løve’s witty, but unsettling Bergman Island opposite Mia Wasikowska, although their fictional roles feel secondary to those played by the central, creative couple Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth. In this film within a film structure, there are lots of in-jokes and nods to Ingmar Bergman’s work (“like a horror film without catharsis”), and equally to Swedish cultural cornerstones and stereotypes, including driving a Volvo, drinking Swedish cider, and even dancing to Abba at a wedding. Krieps is a radiant revelation again, as she was opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, and Roth does barely contained, seething discontent and restlessness better than almost anyone. Oh, and I really want to go on the Bergman Safari now.

Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi had two films in this year’s festival. Drive My Car (above) is a three-hour tale, ironically inspired by short story from Haruki Murakami, and is suitably meta in structure and subject matter. Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura and Reika Kirishima in the pivotal roles, you feel in safe hands as Hamaguchi gradually peels away their outward, performative exteriors to reveal the real truths and identities hidden within. Cleverly, as each has their own epiphany, the grieving protagonist and his company are meanwhile shaping a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which has its own complex dynamic. As for the chauffeur, she gets straight to the heart of the matter and helps with the uplift in the narrative. The second Hamaguchi feature, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy has already deservedly won the Berlin Silver Bear, and goes for a portmanteau structure with three discrete sections, starring Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima and Hyunri. Each of the trio of mini films involves some kind of coincidence or twist of fate, and there’s much delight in seeing each outcome. There’s an almost Sliding Doors/ Constellations feel to the first one, as two friends have unknowingly been seeing the same guy, making the cuckolded one “feel like a defective product”. The second is set in academia, around a very deliberate honey trap to set up a professor. The third, and most satisfying, takes place after a high school reunion – but in a parallel present with no IT or streaming due to a virus – and centres around a mistaken identity that verges on the plot of Brief Encounter. Going to seek out more Hamaguchi on the back of these.

Cannes Grand Prix-winner, A Hero, from Asghar Farhadi has an ideal protagonist and fall-guy in Amir Jadidi as Rahim, trying to escape his fate, but somehow managing to dig himself deeper. Ably supported by a tight cast, including Mohsen Tanabandeh and Fereshteh Sadrorafaii, this is very much the character Rahim’s show. He’s given the chance to pay his way out of debtors’ prison, but when his much-celebrated act of “honesty” backfires, the subsequent cover-ups cannot camouflage the reality, much like the huge paintings he does in jail. Rahim’s elevation to media stardom is instantly resented and judged by his neighbourhood, much like the tall poppy syndrome in many cultures, and he’s only tolerated by some because of his stuttering son, who is the moral heart of the film. There are so many levels and metaphors within this gem of a movie, but the feeling is that Rahim’s trajectory reflects the director’s own treatment by his fellow countrymen, especially now he’s successful.

Basking in the worldwide success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, director-screenwriter Céline Sciamma could have continued down a similar route, but instead she’s reverted to her original filmmaking subjects, the very young. Petite Maman is all viewed through the eyes of young girls Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who start as strangers but end as friends joined by something more intangible. A very special film about which no spoilers should ever be spoken. Sciamma is also one of the co-writers on Jacques Audiard’s very modern portmanteau picture of Paris, 13th District. Starring Noémie Merlant (from Jumbo and Sciamma’s Portrait), the strong ensemble also features Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba and Jehnny Beth as characters who defy easy categorisation, which makes the film all the more enjoyable as it unfolds.


Worthy of all the awards you can throw at him, Franz Rogowski is the heart and soul of Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom, which itself won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes. Meise assembled the central narrative from various stories of individuals affected by the authoritarian legislation Paragraph 175, which criminalised and imprisoned gay men across many decades, until it was finally abolished in 1994. Out of the grim surroundings and privations, against all odds, Rogowski’s character Hans finds intimacy and even something like love in prison, notably with a convicted murderer. Using flashbacks signposted by the length of Hans’ haircut, we leap from 1968 to 1945 to 1957 and are drawn into his seemingly hopeless existence, with huge slabs of darkness suddenly illuminated by tiny chinks of light – much like being in solitary in prison. There are some echoes of works like Kiss of the Spiderwoman, although this feels less fabulous and perhaps more real.

Apart from knowing that it’s jaw-dropping and boundary-pushing, it’s best not to know too much about Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (above). In theory the big draw is star Noomi Rapace as childless mother Maria, with Hilmir Snær Guðnason as her doting husband Ingvar, far out in the wild Icelandic farmlands, where they keep sheep and see no-one. But it’s the set-up and shocking premise that steals the show. When a miracle happens and they finally have an offspring, Ava, for their parental devotion, it feels like the couple might be approaching something like happiness. Until Maria’s brother, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, turns up and won’t accept their unusual family situation. Seriously, just watch it…

What an almighty gathering of talents Mothering Sunday boasts. From its source novel by Graham Swift, to its Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Birch (also a feted playwright) to its hugely impressive leads (Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor) and ensemble cast including Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Patsy Ferran, Glenda Jackson and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, this must have been a dream for director Eva Husson. It’s all very stiff upper lip, starched linen, post-war grief and endless silences in idyllic English countryside. Under fine millinery the faces of Colman, Ferran and Young struggle to hide their emotions, and the men are all buttoned down emotion waiting to explode or implode. You genuinely feel the absence of the boys lost in the Great War, that lost generation haunting those left behind. Now someone give Patsy Ferran a lead role, please.

There’s something reminiscent of Paul Haggis’ Crash in The Divide, with random stories and characters somehow intertwined and interdependent on a single night of trouble in Paris. This could be called ‘One Night in Hell’ as Gilets Jaunes protesters, cops and medics clash in a hospital A&E. What really elevates this above normal emergency services dramas is its director, Catherine Corsini, who navigates through crowded corridors and noisy, bloody situations with a deft wit and humour, aided by superb cast of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Raphaëlle, Marina Foïs as her partner Julie, and Pio Marmaï as downtrodden trucker Yann. Empathy is in short supply and the social divide is clear – “we live in two different worlds” – in what is probably Corsini’s most political film yet.

What a lovely, life-affirming movie Clio Barnard has made in Ali & Ava (above). The title roles are played by Adeel Akhtar (of Back to Life fame) and Claire Rushbrook, both characters naturally gregarious, yet both nervously wary of commitment. With an opening sequence that echoes Barnard’s earliest film, The Arbor, we are plunged straight into the grit and warmth of 21st Century Bradford, tumbling into lives plagued by neglect, poverty and mental illness, yet somehow buoyed up by optimism, family, love and music, including the Buzzcocks on this typically ace soundtrack. Can’t wait to catch this one again.  

Romanian director-screenwriter Radu Jude made Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn as a trilogy of shorter films, each with its own plot and structure, and set during the pandemic. The central section is a scrapbook of juxtaposed images, clips, and anecdotes that initially seem random and unrelated, but build up a picture of Romania through politics, porn and power, plus casual and overt misogyny and racism. The first part is more like a journey, where one woman walks through             a city on edge, with a sharp divide between rich and poor, and a sense of things boiling over, even as inconsequential chatter continues underneath, with the stress of Covid almost adding another character. In the final section we see a teacher on trial for the slightly dodgy footage of her that resurfaced in the first part, and it’s a reminder of how easily censorship and authoritarianism can assert itself. 

Man of the moment Tim Roth crops up again in Sundown, from director-screenwriter Michel Franco (of New Order fame), sharing the screen here with Charlotte Gainsbourg as his bitter, estranged sister, and Iazua Larios as his local love interest in Mexico. A dark mood simmers under the surface throughout, with wealth and ennui clinging to Roth’s character, who defies his family by staying in Acapulco when they return home due to a bereavement. Bringing home the contrast between his previously easy lifestyle and the edgier neighbourhood Roth moves into, there’s a sudden hit, a murder on the local beach in daylight, and a bloody carjacking in which he’s implicated. Entangled in the plot is his mysterious medical condition, along with elements of crime thriller, love story and family drama. Roth has definitely got a second or even third wind in his career. Well deserved.

Leyla Bouzid is the director-screenwriter of A Tale of Love and Desire, and manages to suffuse every minute with passion, longing and lingering eroticism, acted by her stars Sami Outalbali as Ahmed, and Zbeida Belhajamor as Farah. She is from Tunis and seems worldly wise, he is from Algeria and seems chaste and buttoned-down, but these students are somehow drawn to each other, and he gets to know the real Paris through her eyes, by showing her around. Where Bouzid manages to transcend mere love story is in the intertwining of the literature they are studying with the reality of their past heritage and their present lives.

Must admit I was hoping for something more from Harry Wootliff’s True Things, adapted from Deborah Kay Davies’ novel True Things About Me, mainly because of its top-notch stars, Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke. She has a menial, box-ticking job in a benefits office, he is an ex-felon who needs her help, then casts his spell over her, dripping with bad-boy charisma and forcing her into uncomfortable, but thrilling situations. She’s aimless and needy, and he quickly latches onto this, and it all feels so transgressive you just want to shout at her to get out quickly. Hopefully they can be cast together again in something more satisfying and with more depth.

Cleverly shot in one take, weaving in and out of the kitchen, the restaurant and even out into the street and alley, Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point would be notable enough just for this audacious stunt. He has, however, also got a couple of the best actors in the business up front and centre in this ‘real-time’ drama, Stephen Graham playing the stressed-out chef in the pressure-cooker atmosphere, and Vinette Robinson as his right-hand woman, trying to keep the plates spinning and the ship afloat while all about are losing their heads. They face the slings and arrows of outrageous customers, from gobby social media influencers to Jason Flemyng as a celebrity chef and rival who wants to buy them out, plus an uncompromising restaurant inspector, and some unreliable staff. Like a war zone, everything seems on the edge of collapse and disaster, while Graham and Robinson wade through the carnage, and this bodes well for whatever Barantini does next.

Amazing to think you can make a comedy out of our current contagion, but this is what director Roshan Sethi has done with 7 Days. An odd couple of young Americans, Ravi and Rita, meet on a blind date, remotely engineered online by their doting Indian mothers. They soon realise that they are totally unsuitable and ill-matched and are about to go their separate ways when the pandemic goes up a notch and they are instructed to remain in place… which turns into quarantine when one gets sick. Kind of like a locked-room murder mystery, only for romance, they stay in her small apartment and have to live with their chalk and cheese attitudes and habits… but will it end in romance or bitterness? Co-written by Karan Soni, who also plays the finicky, uptight Ravi opposite Geraldine Viswanathan’s laidback Rita, it’s all rather charming – if you can bear to be reminded of Covid.


Benediction not only gives us another welcome Terence Davies drama, but also selects the story of a different war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, as its focus, and utilises some Adam Curtis-style archive juxtaposition to give added impact to war sequences. The quote “God was in his heaven and there were sausages for breakfast” immediately places us in Sassoon’s world, and he’s sensitively played by Jack Lowden as a young man, with Peter Capaldi as his older self. Sassoon seems more at ease with his creative work than his inner and emotional life, and we witness him weaving in and out of society, friendships and relationships with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), Stephen Tennant (Anton Lesser), Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), Edith Sitwell (Lia William), Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), and of course, fellow war poet, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). In fact, the whole film is pretty much a calling card for a couple of generations of British acting royalty, who convey the whiff of snobbery and the angst of PTSD alongside crushing, emotional frigidity with equal ease.

You know what you’re going to get with Paul Verhoeven, and it sure ain’t poetic subtlety! With Benedetta (above) he turns the dial all the way up to eleven as he leaps headlong into this adaptation of Judith Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. It’s so over the top and corny, and unashamedly erotic, that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry as you shovel up your popcorn, transfixed. Set in an Italian convent, run by a ferocious Charlotte Rampling (clearly loving every minute), this is the story of a young nun, Benedetta, energetically played by Virginie Efira, who falls in lust with fellow nun, Daphné Patakia, and they’re not averse to a bit of sado-masochistic action. Meanwhile everyone believes that Benedetta is experiencing stigmata and channelling miracles, suffering for them as a 17th Century plague rages throughout the land. Imagine the film Black Narcissus crossed with Madonna’s Like A Prayer and you’ll be close – then add in the jaw-dropping laughs.

Yet another screen adaptation of one of Robert Harris’ numerous speculative/ alternative historical novels, Munich – Edge of War makes a worthy successor to his Fatherland, Enigma, An Officer and a Spy, The Ghost, and Archangel. This time this pre-World War II story is in the hands of German director Christian Schwochow, and adapted by British playwright Ben Power of Lehmann Trilogy fame, with extra star power from casting Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as the permanently compromised Hugh Legat, plus one of my favourite German actresses, Sandra Huller (of Toni Erdmann fame). It all feels terribly authentic and on-the-brink-of-looming-war, and has fooled many viewers into thinking this is genuine, rather than alt-history. You constantly sense the aim of negotiating to keep the peace is moving further out of reach, with fusty old world British charm no match for focused new German ideology. It just needs some subterfuge and secret opposition from within…

Sports movies used to be box office kryptonite, but it seems like that might be changing with better storytelling and not just casting lookalikes. Tennis being gladiatorial, and full of big characters, feels like an ideal structure and the even more extraordinary story of not one, but two amazing champions in one family is irresistible. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has chosen to tell the tale of Serena and Venus Williams, who exec produced this movie, and conquered every grand slam despite every setback and pushback, through their own pushy parents. So it’s centred on Richard Williams, played by Will Smith in King Richard, and his similarly focused other half, Oracene, portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis, with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as the gifted sisters. We are there with them every step of the way as they achieve the impossible through sheer tenacity, unbelievable skill and undeniably controlling parents. Richard claims he’s in the “champion raising business” and realises the unlikeliness of having “two Mozarts in the same house”, but his mix of arrogance and humour pulls them all through, always making sacrifices with the end game in sight. The film succeeds where other sports films flop by capturing the irrepressible Richard through Smith’s easy humour and boundless enthusiasm, and by casting convincingly athletic actors as the tennis wizards. Secondary characters, like their opponents, are less accurate, but this got huge applause and laughter at my screening and should please sports fans and Will Smith followers alike.

I totally expected to find Spencer, from Pablo Larraín (Jackie), and starring Kristen Stewart not remotely up my street. After all, how many dramatic portrayals of Princess Diana must we have? How wrong I was. The trickery of Stewart’s impersonation, through voice, wig, body language and costumes, captured by director of photography Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and the focus on one tiny part of Diana’s trapped and troubled life makes this “fable from a true tragedy” work. Most of the rest of the cast, notably the royals, are appropriately a bit of a background blur and noise, but the duo who stand out alongside Stewart’s Diana are the always excellent Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins, as bad cop/ good cop, or oppressor and devotee in the hothouse atmosphere of Sandringham.

Set in the familiar ferry port of Ouistreham/ Caen in Normandy, Between Two Worlds (above) is director Emmanuel Carrère’s unflinching look at the underground, black economy, where employment is always uncertain, workers are casual and casually exploited, and trapped in a neverending cycle of grinding poverty. Based on the non-fiction reportage of journalist Florence Aubenas (a sort of French Polly Toynbee) this casts the hugely impressive Juliette Binoche as the undercover reporter, who assumes another identity to explore this world first hand, taking on random cleaning jobs, with non-actors like Hélène Lambert and Léa Carne as her fellow workers. Carrère/Binoche/Aubenas aims “to make the invisible visible” through this exposé, but it also looks at the moral and ethical dilemma of assuming a false identity to fool those who trust you most. Similarly, placing documentary subject matter within a dramatic framework makes it more relatable and powerful, especially with Binoche leading the way.  

Kenneth Branagh has never really tackled the subject of the place that loomed large in his childhood and shaped him, until now. With Belfast he’s written and directed something so personal that the main character is actually him as a boy, Buddy, played by newcomer Jude Hill. He’s also inadvertently tapped into the current vogue for shooting in black and white, as also seen in Joel Coen’s Macbeth and Rebecca Hall’s Passing. Despite being set as the Troubles in Northern Ireland really kick off, Branagh has conjured up something warm and almost sentimental, but always with the background of simmering sectarian tension. Playing his mum and dad, Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan make a believable couple trying to shield their kids from reality. But it’s in the casting of Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as Buddy’s grandparents that he makes his real coup. Both exude hardbitten, world-weary wisdom, but also empathy and unconditional love for family and country. It’s all set against the soundtrack of classic Van Morrison songs, and you do feel this is Branagh’s own, nostalgic love letter to his hometown.

Il Buco, directed by Michelangelo Frammartino is one of those films that is both real and imagined, shot now, but set against the stark, raw beauty of Calabria’s mountains in 1961, during an expedition to map the region’s caves. It’s deliberately slow, with pretty much zero dialogue, and the viewer is right there with the explorers as they enter the darkness with candlelit hard-hats. But whenever the camera pulls back to reveal the scale of the setting, it reminds us that the unchanging land itself is the true star. 

With celebrated Aussie actors Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia playing your parents, you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit daunted, but gifted, shapeshifting actor Caleb Landry Jones actually manages to come out of Justin Kurzel’s dark drama Nitram not just unscathed, but arguably elevated to their level. As Nitram, he’s an accident waiting to happen in troubled, human form, bully and bullied outcast, feral and untethered, until he’s befriended by an extremely eccentric older woman, Helen, who turns out to be loaded. Essie Davis (who is married to the director, Kurzel) lets rip while playing Helen, managing to portray her as extremely weird and unpredictable, but also sympathetic, as she indulges Nitram’s every whim and plan. What makes this film different to portraits of other monstrous, real-life mass murderers is that we see all the mundane background and motivation of this character, Nitram, including his purchase of huge amounts of weaponry and ammunition, all leading up to the terrible massacre he committed in Tasmania in 1996. And then Kurzel stops the action dead. Bold movie-making and towering acting from Jones.


Quick whizz through a handful of intertwining thrills, spills and even a laugh or two. Brother’s Keeper from director-screenwriter Ferit Karahan is a tense drama set over 24 hours in a Kurdish boys’ boarding school surrounded by oppressive, snowy mountains and with very little levity. Starring young Samet Yildiz as Kurdish boy Yusuf, the superficially simple tale explores what appears to be systematic and institutionalised buck-passing and abuse, and leaves the audience guessing at what happened in a scene “off-camera”, right up to the climax.

Cop Secret (above) is the first feature directed by Iceland’s recently retired national goalkeeper, Hannes Thór Halldórsson (no, really, he even saved a Lionel Messi penalty in the World Cup). On the surface, this is set up as a mismatched “buddy” police thriller, but is really a broad comedy, that embraces incredibly silly sequences alongside brutal violence from cartoonish villains, with generous helpings of homoeroticism. Showing their comic timing and versatility, the stars include Audunn Blöndal, Egill Einarsson, and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, who also appears in the extraordinary Lamb.

Michael Pearce’s unexpected follow-up to his wonderful Channel Islands thriller debut Beast, is Encounter. You could see this as a straightforward sci-fi drama, or a fathers-for-justice type parental spat that’s got out of control, or even a portrait of paranoia, PTSD and mental illness – or maybe a mash-up of all three. The reason you stick with its twisting narrative is mainly due to the protagonist being played by an intense Riz Ahmed, with Octavia Spencer on his tail. It’s very ambitious, with genuine tension building throughout, and occasional echoes of A Quiet Place, so even though it’s not quite there, it’s definitely worth watching.

I’m a huge Korean film fan, but have to admit that Humidity Alert, Bong Soo Ko’s satire of the country’s indie film scene, doesn’t quite land all its laughs. There are instantly recognisable squirm-inducing moments, like the awkward Q&A after the movie screening, and with everything set during Covid protocols to comic effect, and thankfully just about enough ideas to make you believe that with a bigger budget the director might knock it out the park next time.

Randall Okita’s high-concept Canadian thriller See for Me has a low budget, but still keeps you on the edge of your seat. The premise is that Sophie (Skyler Davenport) is an ex-ski champ who is fast losing her eyesight, but has agreed to housesit in an unfamiliar and extremely remote property. When some robbers break in on her first night – like a darker, deadlier Home Alone – Sophie has to turn to an app on her phone, called ‘See For Me’ where gamer Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) becomes her eyes. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the framing feels domestic and soapy, which somehow manages to ratchet up the tension, enhanced by fabulous sound design.

What Do We See When We Look At The Sky is a beautifully shot feature-length drama from director-screenwriter Alexandre Koberidze that at times feels like a documentary. With lots of charm and a very French flavour to its storytelling, it memorably includes some almost balletic filming of children playing football. Very promising.

As promised, in the concluding part of this round-up we’ll look at some directorial debuts, animated features and documentaries – plus my worst picks from the fortnight. And the much-coveted DVDfever Awards.