The London Film Festival 2014 Part 1: Mainstream

the-drop180In Julius Avery’s debut feature, SON OF A GUN, another Official Best Film contender, Alice Wikander has a completely different, but equally pivotal role as Tasha, a modern Eastern European version of the gangster’s moll. Starting out as a prison drama, and building to a heist thriller, we see the story through the eyes of rookie inmate JR (the superb Brenton Thwaites). His only defence in a prison riddled with abusive, tattooed lifers is his quick thinking, his ability to play chess, and his luck in being taken under the wing of charismatic criminal Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor). When JR is released, he helps Lynch and his cohorts break out, and they become mutually dependent as they carry out an audacious gold robbery. But despite being told she’s “off limits”, JR falls for Tasha and seems to be compromising the gang’s plan with his infatuation in the midst of the villains’ everyday, crunching brutality. From the tight pacing and father-son relationship to the dumb, muscled criminals and masked raid, director Avery wears his Michael Mann influences on his sleeve, and he’s deliberately set it in his homeland of Western Australia and the “cinematic ugliness of Perth”. Only missteps are some of the rather saccharine songs on the soundtrack and the clichés as the film races towards its denouement.

Another European actor coming into his own, Matthias Schoenaerts, features as the dodgy boyfriend in fellow Belgian Michael R Roskam’s dark Brooklyn thriller, THE DROP (above right), and as the celebrated architect and romantic lead in Alan Rickman’s period drama, A LITTLE CHAOS. Based on Dennis Lehane’s short story, Animal Rescue, The Drop drips with menace at every step of its twisting, turning plot. Schoenaerts, previously best known for Rust And Bone, plays lowlife hustler Eric Deeds, who is the catalyst for much of the action after he dumps his own pitbull puppy in the trash, then comes back to reclaim it. Tom Hardy, who was sensational in last year’s festival hit, Locke, plays Bob, a slow-talking bartender, minding his own business and keeping his nose clean, until he finds and adopts the dog, with help from Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who is Deeds’ abused ex-girlfriend. Above them all is Bob’s boss and cousin, Marv, effortlessly portrayed by the late, great James Gandolfini. Marv has his hands in many pies and the till, and is cruising for a fall when he seems implicated in a stick-up at his own bar. His nihilistic attitude is summed up with his line: “We’re dead already; we’re just still walking around.” Throw in some ruthless Chechens who want their money back, a cop Bob knows from his local Catholic church, and the massive bar takings from the Super Bowl weekend, and you have the ingredients for a dog-eat-dog climax – but who is really the top dog? Worth seeing for all four actors, but especially Hardy and Gandolfini.

the-disappearance-of-eleanor-rigbyWho would have thought that a 17th Century period drama about gardening could be such fun-filled romp? A LITTLE CHAOS stars Kate Winslet as landscape gardener Sabine de Barra, who is employed by doe-eyed Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to bring her wild vision to create a magical, outdoor ballroom in the formal gardens at Versailles. She is recently widowed, he is in a loveless open marriage, and their budding mutual attraction seems inevitable. There are setbacks, but romance eventually blooms in the free and easy court setting, and the under the watchful eye of the flirtatious Sun King himself, portrayed with relish by director Alan Rickman. Everyone seems to be having fun playing his camp followers, but Stanley Tucci stands out in the role of Louis’ brother.

Period drama doesn’t always work though, especially when it’s burdened with the great expectations of adapting a bona fide classic. MADAME BOVARY, directed by Sophie Barthes, must have started with good intentions, but soon turns into a slightly dreary story of a winsome, buttoned-up, bored housewife, surrounded by actors with a muddle of accents. Mia Wasikowska plays the title role with transatlantic tones, Henry Lloyd-Hughes boldly gives her French rural doctor husband a French accent, Rhys Ifans plays the local tradesman as Welsh, and Ezra Miller portrays her love interest, Dupuis, as a preppy American. And Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti. Disappointingly this is a paint-by-numbers costume drama for Twilight fans.

The high-concept structure of THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (above right), starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, is hugely appealing. Shot first by Ned Benson in two completely separate parts, one from his point of view, one from hers, the film show at the festival is yet another version: Them, combining parts of the previous films, and supplementing this with new material. Without seeing its predecessors, the viewer is floundering in a patchwork of periods and viewpoints, trying to make sense of fragments of their lives together and apart. Both actors give their best, Chastain all gaunt recklessness and frailty, McAvoy all potency and indecision, but you sense a sadness still suffuses their attempts to move on. They flicker and bicker, surrounded by a quality supporting cast that includes Ciaran Hinds and William Hurt as their respective fathers. But without the other parts of the trilogy, this is hard to make sense of.

Go to page 3 for Camp X-Ray, My Old Lady and more…


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