The London Film Festival 2014 has come and gone, and once again, Helen M Jerome has been watching many a movie, and now brings you the first of three parts of her look back at the festival, starting with the more mainstream offerings.
What a tremendously diverse 58th London Film Festival we’ve just been treated to. Okay, so maybe 2014 didn’t have the massive movies like last year’s Gravity and Twelve Years A Slave. And it wasn’t bookended by a pair of Tom Hanks’ vehicles. Yet it had breadth and depth all over; you just had to look a bit further to find it, in dynamic debuts, in dark dramas, even in off-the-wall comedies.
When you consider that some of the films at last year’s festival are only just being released, like Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, then you begin to appreciate how far ahead of the game you can get by devouring the festival fare on offer. So without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
We are dividing our coverage into the customary three parts, with Part One (i.e. this bit) taking in the bigger and smaller movies from the US, UK and Australia. Basically if it’s in the English language, it’s here. Then the forthcoming parts will deal with everything else. So Part Two will look at all the other wonderful, subtitled films from across the world. And in Part Three we’ll announce our annual, highly covetable and completely virtual DVD Fever Awards, as well as rounding up the best documentaries.
The festival frequently opens with an all-guns-blazing blockbuster. But this time it was the turn of a much quieter, but more lingering World War II drama, THE IMITATION GAME (above-right). Back in the day, this might have been an Ealing Studios production, with a young Alec Guinness or Alistair Sim taking the lead. But now their modern-day equivalent, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Alan Turing, all cheekbones, parting and on the spectrum, with Keira Knightley as his equal, but not-really-love-interest. And it’s meticulously directed by Morten Tyldum, who previously made Headhunters, DVDfever’s favourite thriller of 2011. The true story of a misunderstood boffin who becomes a war hero by being persistent and thinking differently to crack the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park, Graham Moore’s screenplay was the hottest property around a couple of years back, according to Hollywood’s Black List.
The tale is given yet more depth and context by flipping back to Turing’s bullied boyhood, and then forward to his post-war arrest, which shows how cruelly he was treated, despite the best endeavours of copper Rory Kinnear. In fact, the entire cast is superb, with special mentions for the stiff-upper-lip acting of both Charles Dance and Mark Strong as Turing’s flawed bosses. Earnest puzzle solving becomes a matter of life and death in the bloody urgency of war, as the casualties mount up, yet personal sacrifices have to be made for the greater cause, leading to much soul searching. And Cumberbatch is perfect as the outsider who also thinks outside the box.
In terms of era, there’s no shift at all for the closing film, FURY (right), written and directed by David Ayer, and starring a grizzled Brad Pitt and his battered Sherman tank. For this is set in the dog days of World War II, behind enemy lines, when troops are worn thin, and everyone anticipates an end to hostilities. Much of the action is filmed within the confines of the tank, in a claustrophobic style reminiscent of Das Boot. And when they face their final assault, surrounded on all sides, last tank standing, the inevitable comparison is with The Alamo, but with CGI gunfire effects.
It’s a vision of hell, drenched in mud and blood, with tight-knit buddies drawing closer, even absorbing a rookie team member into their tank in the shape of Norman (the excellent Logan Lerman) who becomes their moral conscience. Pitt gives it his all as their sergeant; Shia LeBeouf, as usual, spends time blinking back tears, and Michael Pena (from previous festival favourite End of Watch, also by David Ayer) is on fine form. And there are decent supporting roles for Jason Isaacs and Anamaria Marinca. But the main problem is the clunky script. There are lots of biblical utterances, and its pithy platitudes like “Ideas are peaceful; history is violent” feel out of place. Full of sound and fury, but signifying not quite the sum of those parts.
Now for the real festival treats: two of my favourite mainstream movies, and one unlikely, but must-see oddity.
MR TURNER (right) is the story of one of Britain’s best artists, JMW Turner, played by one of Britain’s best actors, Timothy Spall, and made by one of Britain’s best directors, Mike Leigh. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this combination should add up to an almost certain artistic triumph. But what perhaps surprises more is how funny, warm, inspiring and glorious this film is, and how, flaws and all, it leads to a fuller appreciation of Turner’s greatness in the last part of his life. As you’d expect from Leigh, he presents a palette of senses, colours and emotions, not to mention mutton chops and pigs cheeks. Spall’s Turner converses abruptly, often snorting and grunting, or enduring stilted conversations in withdrawing rooms, yet his curiosity and love of language are clear.
Light dominates every scene, its presence and absence, and Turner is always drawn back to the sea. He dips his toe into the scientific world, notably quizzing Lesley Manville’s Mary Somerville, but he also happily uses prostitutes as models and casually ruts with his devoted maid (Dorothy Atkinson), who steals every single scene she’s in. He feels the loss of his dear devoted daddy (Paul Jesson) deeply, with his grief simmering just below the surface, yet he cruelly neglects and abandons his own offspring. He teases his artistic rival Constable (James Fleet) at the Royal Academy, and performs for an audience there by spitting and daubing on his canvas. Poignantly he anticipates the end of his profession not only when he gets a daguerreotype photograph made, and when Queen Victoria turns against him, but also when he sees the Pre-Raphaelites start to dominate the art world. So it’s a relief when he seems to finally find happiness in the arms of a widow in Margate. You’d be mad to miss this, but madder still if you don’t see it in its full glory on the big screen. Plaudits (and more awards please) to Messrs Spall, Leigh – and Turner.
WHIPLASH is a dizzying whirlwind of a movie that’s also about the arts. Superficially about a music student and his conductor, it’s really about isolation and teamwork, dysfunctional relationships, unbelievable highs and devastating lows. It’s about creation, fear, systematic bullying, mental and physical abuse, as gifted drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) pushes himself to the limit to please the leader of jazz academy orchestra, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), with both delivering career-best performances. Based on first-time director Damien Chavelle’s own experiences as a drumming student, this evolved from yet another screenplay that appeared on Hollywood’s Black List.
Shot and edited like a sports movie, we see Andrew train like a boxer, his hands patched up and bleeding all over his drum kit, getting his highs from listening to Buddy Rich CDs and occasional trips to the movies with his laidback dad. Meanwhile Fletcher gets off on getting in the faces of his student musicians, delivering tirades of foul-mouthed, sexist, sizeist, homophobic, racist abuse, and scaring the bejaysus out of each and every one of them – just like the sergeant major in every military movie. It ends up as a battle of single-minded egos, with Andrew and Fletcher pushing themselves to the brink, and becomes a mixture of Black Swan and Rocky, as we see the drummer get wicked. Oh, and it has a dynamite jazz soundtrack. On no account should you miss this extraordinarily exhilarating movie experience.
Also boasting a terrific soundtrack – from Faris Badwan of The Horrors and Rachel Zeffira, aka Cat’s Eyes – is the surprisingly funny THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, from director Peter Strickland. Deservedly in the festival’s official competition shortlist, this almost defies description. Set in an unnamed country peopled almost exclusively by females, in an unspecified time that’s filmed in 1970s style, it focuses on the oppressively close relationship between two women. Cynthia is portrayed with relish and expert comic timing by Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known for running Denmark in the brilliant series Borgen; her lover Evelyn is delicately played by Chiara D’Anna. As the drama unfolds, we see that they have an arrangement that involves sado-masochistic role-playing in every aspect of their daily lives, from Evelyn’s repetitive housework to Cynthia’s restrictive wardrobe and lectures on entomology. But is Cynthia being cruel to be kind? And in their make-believe world of suppressed emotions and outward cruelty, which woman is really dominating? Best thing to do is just sit back and relish this darkly comic and beautifully shot drama.
Sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. And that’s the case with FOXCATCHER (above right), directed by Bennett Miller, who previously helmed true stories in Capote and Moneyball. Initially this is a drama about a rich philanthropist who wants to help the US wrestling team achieve gold in the upcoming Seoul Olympics. The first part of the film is framed as hagiography, with Steve Carell playing John Du Pont as an altruistic and generous sponsor, with Channing Tatum as the grateful grappler Mark Shultz. They bond quickly, with John living in the shadow of his horse-mad mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and Mark living in the shadow of his good-natured brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). But then it gets dark. Really dark. Tatum is excellent as the washed-up sportsman, all delicate gait and musclebound body, with punishing routine and junkfood diet. Ruffalo is the bouncy, moral core, seeing the best in everyone and always putting his wife (Sienna Miller) and family first. Carell is a revelation, unrecognisable with prosthetic nose and drawling speech, flattened by his own underachievement, driven by wanting to please his mother, and fuelled by massive cocaine consumption. And once he gets his hooks into the Shultz brothers, it’s almost impossible for them to escape.
One of the breakthrough stars of this festival is Danish actress Alice Wikander, who carries the British biopic, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, and co-stars in Aussie thriller SON OF A GUN. With perfect RP English, stiff upper lip and topnotch millinery, Wikander plays Vera Brittain, writer of the classic World War I autobiography, Testament of Youth. Her pragmatic parents, played by Dominic West and Emily Watson, would rather she didn’t go to Oxford and become a dreaded ‘bluestocking’, but she longs to escape the confines of Buxton, like her beloved brother, Edward (Taron Egerton). What complicates her fledgling freedom is first falling in love with Edward’s friend, Roland (Kit Harington), then the outbreak of war, and both young men quickly signing up to go to the front. So, despite having started Oxford, Vera feels she must do her bit and serve as a nurse, soon up to her elbows in guts and grieving, as one by one she loses everyone she cares about. As you’d expect, Wikander is supported by stalwart British actors including Miranda Richardson as her Oxford tutor, and Hayley Atwell as her nursing senior. The only false note comes with some of the dialogue that feels a tad too modern. But director James Kent steers the story with clarity, and allows Vera a ray of hope by hinting at her lifelong relationships with Winifred Holtby and politics.
Go to page 2 for The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, Camp X-Ray and more…