London Film Festival 2020 Part 1: Extreme circumstances and setbacks can change some things for the better. And that has to be the conclusion after this year’s remarkable London Film Festival, which managed to stream almost everything across all parts of the UK, and in parallel stage some actual in-person screenings. Maybe this might be the blueprint for future festivals, making it accessible wherever you are… The quality was high, even if the quantity was understandably reduced, as Tricia Tuttle and her team scooped up some domestic and international gems. For this, much thanks!
In this two-part review of the entire festival fortnight, I’ll focus first on the feature-length ‘fiction’ movies, then concentrate on the documentaries, archive films, episodic releases, and shorts – plus the much-coveted DVDfever Awards – in part two.
Not as much business for the red carpet hire companies this year, which is a shame, as the opening and closing films of the festival are both extraordinarily good. The eagerly-awaited new Steve McQueen feature, Mangrove (top), is a triumphant opener however you look at it. From its colour palette of blues and greens outside, and oranges and yellows inside, to its soundtrack of steel drums, Bob Marley and lover’s rock (plus the inevitable Jim Reeves) it gets the period just right, as the sixties turn into the seventies in this real-life story. Comfortably recreating this era, McQueen weaves together archive and recreated footage as we see Frank, brilliantly played by Shaun Parkes, setting up his Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. Initially apolitical, he is reluctantly shaped by bruising encounters with oppressive, racist policemen, and enlightening exposure to real life characters played by Letitia Wright, Rochenda Sandall, Gary Beadle and Malachi Kirby. When it all inevitably ends up in court, the Old Bailey sequences are dynamite, with Alex Jennings as the judge and Samuel West for the prosecution. As an episode of McQueen’s Small Axe BBC series, this blows the bloody doors off, and another episode screened at the festival, Lover’s Rock, follows in its slipstream. Superficially slighter, this hour-long film revolves around a house party, from the preparations to the fallout. Food and hairstyles are readied, turntable and sound system set up, and a definite, bass-heavy mood is created with music from Barry Biggs, Carl Douglas and Sister Sledge to the evergreen, high-noted Silly Games, by Janet Kay. Close dancing, dub sounds, Martha’s dazzling smile, and Franklyn’s irrepressible bounce (immaculately played by Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward), lead us through the night, while a troubling assault, and bubbling unease play out around the edges. Feels like this will be a defining series for 2020.
Bonnets and fossils shape closing film Ammonite (above), directed by Francis Lee, who previously brought us God’s Own Country. And this is another finely wrought, condensed love story, once again between two very unlikely soulmates. There are echoes of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the Lyme Regis setting, and The Piano in the constricting costumes, yet it delivers a surprisingly modern story. At its core is a real person, leading Victorian palaeontologist Mary Anning, played with singular seriousness by Kate Winslet. She lives an isolated, asocial, monochrome life with her mother (Gemma Jones), with a reminder of a previous alliance in the shape of Fiona Shaw, living not far away. We witness Mary’s discoveries being literally relabelled and appropriated by her male peers, yet she toils away, almost feral when outside, and intensely rigorous, private and driven in her work. Into her no-frills, no-nonsense world comes a seemingly enlightened scientist (James McArdle) and his young wife, Charlotte, played by Saoirse Ronan, who is convalescing and initially docile. Once she’s left in Mary’s care, to learn about fossils and not be left alone with her melancholia, Charlotte starts to open up, and when she collapses she is nursed back to health by Mary and her mum, plus the local doctor (Alec Secareancu, from God’s Own Country). Together Mary and Charlotte unearth a very large fossil, which is a bit of a metaphor for their hearts opening up to each other, and their passion then accelerates at warp speed. Don’t expect neat endings, but do relish the details, including bonnets with curling spirals like ammonites, and though it’s only 17 miles from Chesil Beach to Lyme Regis, and set a century earlier, this is a very different affair for Ronan. Plaudits all round!
Another handful of movies not only impressed me much, but have also lingered in my sensory memory since viewing them – and I’d like to see them all again ASAP TBH. Filmed in his own home village, Czech director Bohdan Slama’s Shadow Country (above) hit me right in the solar plexus. Written over several years by Ivan Arsenjev, this black and white drama drips with atmosphere, from its sound design to its casting. Starting from the christening of baby Karel, and glimpses of infidelity, we are thrust into a rural, Bohemian community. And as they try to move the border for political ends at the end of the 1930s, this sometimes feels like a reverse Heimat, as some villagers eagerly try to hang a swastika from a tree. Moving through into the 1940s, many embrace German domination, shifting with the wind, collaborating and quickly dobbing in their neighbours and making armbands. Like Heimat, there’s an everyday ordinariness in their actions, even as the sound builds tension and fear. Post-war and into the 1950s, allegiances swing back and retribution comes swiftly and mercilessly from men with impressive moustaches. Deeply unsettling, chilling and entirely credible, this is all the more powerful in not opting for easy ‘black and white’ answers.
A gut punch also arrives in the shape of Iranian director Farnoosh Samadi’s debut feature, 180 Degree Rule. She gets the mood of unease and powerlessness just right, and achieves an almost Shakespearean or even Greek tragedy feel, as fate bears down on her central character. With foreshadowing from the first frames, stress at work, a chauvinistic, unhelpful husband, sickly child and family wedding on the horizon, Tehran teacher Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi, extraordinary) seems trapped. Can she escape oppressive patriarchy as the intensity and claustrophobia ramps up – and can her audacious, almost ridiculous cover-up plan succeed? I await Samadi’s next project eagerly.
Hard to believe that The Salt In Our Waters is Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s debut feature, a visually beautiful snapshot of what happens when reality and religious tradition and denial collide. The excellent Titus Zia plays an artist coming to terms with bereavement by setting up a studio in a remote, coastal fishing village in Bangladesh, in the midst of everyday devastation from storms and climate change. This chimes with the current, weird global trend of clinging onto conspiracy theories rather than science, as superstitious locals turn on him (“he’s from the city! He makes idols!” aka sculptures), blaming him for their bad luck and poor catches, rather than the climate emergency all around them. As debates rage over man’s helplessness, the film quietly pits art against religious zealotry, and frames this as an endless battle over control.
I adored Chloe Zhao’s previous feature, The Rider, and can report that she’s exceeded even my great expectations with Nomadland (above). Based on Jessica Bruder’s book, and using a cast that mainly consists of non-actors – some of them real-life nomads – Zhao makes every scene ring true in a film about leaving everything behind to find yourself. Frances McDormand (who co-produced the film) has lost her husband, and her town has lost its gypsum plant, its identity, its zipcode and its mojo. So she strikes out to makes ends meet, first in an Amazon warehouse, living out of her van, then adapting her vehicle for all her needs, and going further afield as the temperature plummets. She takes any job, from sorting potatoes to cleaning toilets. Crucially, she finds her community of waifs and strays on her travels, ever shifting, yet fiercely loyal to each other. There’s a hint of romance in the shape of David Strathairn, but this film really belongs to McDormand and the road less travelled. She is naïve, resilient, optimistic, and Zhao once again shows a strong connection with nature, and the musical score effectively convey loneliness, with McDormand the living embodiment of Bruce Springsteen’s stripped-down Nebraska album. I loved every single minute.
The idea of the female outsider, not quite accepted into society, living on the edges of acceptability is further explored in a quartet of other superb releases.
Wildfire is Cathy Brady’s hugely accomplished debut feature, and casting is again crucial to its success. Kelly (Nika McGuigan, remarkable) has been missing for a year, adrift and alone, wearing her lucky St Christopher. She returns to her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) where old family history and rifts resurface, with Lauren’s partner Sean the peacemaker amidst old sectarian divisions around the Irish border, all framed by contemporaneous Brexit talks. Old wounds open up, forcing the perfectly cast sisters closer together and showing us how haunted they are by their mother’s death. A blaze of a film, aptly dedicated to the tragically departed McGuigan.
Herself, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is also set in Ireland, but this time focuses on a woman fighting back against domestic abuse and seeking to anchor herself and her two young daughters safely. It opens with Sandra’s escape from her husband, and feels frighteningly real as played by Clare Dunne, who is the beating heart of the film, having also written and produced it. There are obvious comparisons with Nomadland, although the main difference is that Sandra has ties, and instead of creating a home in the back of a van, decides to self-build a new home in the back garden of the academic (Harriet Walter, gruffly radiant) whose house she cleans. While she fights for custody she makes friends despite her own suspicious prickliness, and there are empowering Witness-style scenes of building with help from unlikely quarters. Guarantee you’ll be rooting for Sandra.
Joanna Scanlon (star of comedy dramas No Offence and The Thick of It) shows a different side in After Love, the feature debut from Aleem Khan. She plays Mary, married to a cross-channel ferry captain who works the Dover-Calais route, and when she’s suddenly left bereft she becomes curious about the unseen part of her husband’s existence. She soon begins to wonder if he lived a double life, and decides to travel across to France. But once she finds the truth, will Mary let on what she knows to the woman he lived with in Calais? Subtly poised and shaped around the relationship and edginess of the two raw, grieving bereaved women, this explores new territory, and I look forward to Khan’s next film.
Director-writer-hyphenate Miranda July is nothing if not quirky, and Kajillionaire will not disappoint her fans. Turns out Debra Winger (almost unrecognisable here) is a July fan, so that helped with finding the right person to play mother in the family of three grifters. And casting Evan Rachel Wood against type to play the daughter of Winger and Richard Jenkins is also a stroke of genius. Little details like their haircuts, their terrible apartment with foam flowing down the walls, and their flammable clothing and all round cheapskatery fit in seamlessly with their almost cultish exclusion of any outsiders. But when they invite the glamorous Gina Rodriguez into their gang – and they all have their reasons for wanting her – the plot takes a jolt in the arm and their grifting starts to feel uncomfortably exposed. Will they all rub along, or will Rodriguez release the naïve Wood from the gaslighting cultish trio? There’s an unexpected charm and romance within the criminal enterprises, but always pulling back from sentimentality thanks to July’s comic sensibilities.
Casting is key in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (above), as he gathers a fantastic ensemble of Danish actors, led by the magnetic Mads Mikkelsen, in this initially high comedy about alcohol. Mikkelsen and his mates are all high school teachers, and their drinking culture is endemic, with his own history lessons dangerously all over the place. But instead of calling time, the quartet of chums decide to embrace a theory that it’s better to drink literally all the time, keeping their alcohol levels high. Once they embark on their experiment, they carry on ramping it up, even encouraging pupils to get their own Dutch courage… but will it get out of hand? Mads is as glorious as ever, almost as good as in The Hunt, and should be a decent choice for the Fantastic Beasts franchise…
Another cracking ensemble has been assembled for Bad Tales, the second feature from fraternal Italian duo, Fabio and Damiano D’Innocenzo. We see evidence of the eternal rule of history repeating itself, as awful parents beget awful offspring. Meanness and cruelty are rife, with tiny slivers of joy. Seething resentment and nihilism seem universal, bullying is casual. An awfully good film with awful people, and maybe an inevitable ending.
Never Gonna Snow Again took me by surprise as it’s co-directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, whose previous film The Other Lamb I hated on every level. This time she’s working with Michal Englert, and they gather an almost universally dislikeable group of people, all living in a Stepford Wives-type housing estate with identical mansions and several dogs. Into their midst comes a man from Pripyat aka Chernobyl, the well-built massage therapist Zhenia (Alec Utgoff, superb), eager to help the bored and estranged Polish housewives with their physical needs – and some even view him as a wise sage, or healing man. “It used to be all pheasants and meadows,” says one woman of the close-knit community. And it does look fabulous and very stylised, even as it moderates this mood with wry humour and nods to loss, memory and isolation. Haunting.
Another fish out of water story comes in the brilliant Limbo (above) from Ben Sharrock. Set in remote Scotland it resembles the old Ealing Comedies, like Whisky Galore, but with incredibly dark social realism running through it. The fish is Syrian asylum seeker Omar (Amir El-Masry, wonderful) who, along with fellow refugees from different countries, has been sent to a place so unwelcoming and bleak – a local place for local people – that desperation sets in quickly for many. Omar has his trusty instrument, his oud, for company and a determination and outlook that sustains him, but it’s definitely not a rose-tinted story. The cherry on the top of this drama is casting Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) as the woman helping them learn customs and language subtleties. Much to amuse; lots to chew on, especially once the local grocery store gets Omar’s favourite spice in.
Spitting rhymes from the get-go, the Mogul Mowgli lead character Zed, created by co-writer and star Riz Ahmed, is lightning in a bottle. He has the whole world at his feet, and director Bassan Tariq shows much from Zed’s point of view, even from his own phone, and we jump back to his childhood too, with Riz’s own footage making it all feel more personal. It’s an existence where he never seems to switch off; his rival RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), his entourage and family crowd in on him – and you wonder if it’s ever possible to really go home. The music builds – melding intoxicating qawwali and rap – and becomes very tense, with anger rising, and then Zed’s sudden plunge into terrible illness. Big questions are posed about masculinity, and the idea of inhabiting two or even three worlds, all swirling around with a sense of delirium. A triumph for Ahmed and Tariq.
Go to Page 2 for more from the London Film Festival 2020 Part 1!