The London Film Festival 2015 review from Helen M Jerome begins with the Big Hitters of the event. Note that for all posters featured, click on them for the full-size version. Also, this review is split over three pages.
Red carpets, flashbulbs, flashing smiles, selfies, limos, tuxedos, designer frocks and rocks. The 59th London Film Festival embraced all these while presenting glamorous celebrities and bona fide movie stars, but also subtitled gems, rarities, breakthroughs and hints of those actors and directors who’ll probably be making headlines (and money) in years to come. It’s also a onestopshop to get ahead of your friends and see work that will be released across the coming 12 months. And despite a surfeit of biopics, there’s so much variety it might make your head spin.
Once again, we’ll split our coverage into three parts, with Part One including movies from the US, UK and Australia. So, if it’s in the English language, it’s probably here. Then Part Two will look at all the other releases, the coolest subtitled films from around the globe. And in Part Three we’ll announce our annual, covetable yet virtual DVDfever Awards, and round up the best documentaries.
This was billed as the Year of the Strong Woman at the festival, and with a script by Abi Morgan, and stars including Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, it seems entirely fitting that Suffragette was chosen to open it. Directed by Sarah Gavron, this film was years in the making, and its key choice is to foreground an ordinary, working class woman (Mulligan), gradually drawn into the Suffragette cause, much to the anguish of her husband (Ben Whishaw) and anger of her oppressive boss. Outraged by the way her fellowworker (Duff, terrifically mouthy) is treated, and inspired by posher women (Garai, Bonham Carter, plus Streep suitably starry as Suffragette Superstar Mrs Pankhurst), this is very much Mulligan’s journey from mousey bystander to ostracised protester, thrown in prison for taking direct action.
Every actor is superb, the design feels authentic, the millinery topnotch, and they actually managed to film key scenes in Westminster, but the dialogue frequently seems just a bit clunkily modern, which lessens the effect of the drama. Worth seeing for the performances, and the important, relevant story though.
If the subject matter inspires you, you should also seek out Make More Noise, a series of very diverse Suffragette short films made over a century ago, including comic renditions of strident women played by men, the hilarious Tilly Girls, and footage of Emily Davison’s huge funeral procession, which also closes Gavron’s feature.
Closing film Steve Jobs is from festival favourite Danny Boyle, starring another fave rave Michael Fassbender in the title role, and with the expected, quickfire, Howard Hawks-style screenplay from West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin. So far, so biopic. But structurally, the film’s acts are engineered around key product launches, and the hype and fallout around them starting with the original Macintosh computer in 1984 and ending with the iMac in 1998. Fassbender is dependably focused and driven as Jobs, ignoring naysayers sometimes to his cost, hubristic and almost autistic in his lack of empathy and asocial attitude to staff and family. Co-stars Seth Rogen, Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels are excellent as his various friends/foes, Steve Wozniak, Joanna Hoffman and John Sculley, respectively, sporting big hair and bigger glasses as they fully embrace their ’80s identities. Frustration and lack of acknowledgment even drives Wozniak to declare “I’m tired of being Ringo, when I know I was John,” and in the face of Jobs’ rampant ego you begin to see his point. Nice one, Sorkin.
To tell the truth, it might have been better if the movie Truth had also been scripted by Aaron Sorkin. Not that Aussie director James Vanderbilt makes a hash of his own screenplay, far from it, but with the political and TV current affairs subject matter being so close to Sorkin’s heart (as seen in The West Wing and The Newsroom), he might have put more light amongst the shade. This is such a recent story that it still resonates, and it’s broadly a biopic about crusading TV journalist Mary Mapes, best known for breaking stories like Abu Ghraib. Vanderbilt’s compatriot, Cate Blanchett, is marvellous (is she ever otherwise?) as Mapes, and her foil is Robert Redford as Dan Rather, effortlessly conveying the trusted gravitas of the 60 Minutes host. But under pressure from deadlines and those with agendas, they make a slip up which goes on air in 2004.
The vultures circle and their careers are in jeopardy. Have they and their whistleblower been stitched up? Will we ever really know? Some fine supporting roles for the likes of Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Stacy Keach, and a promising feature debut for Vanderbilt.
The film that will get Cate Blanchett another Academy Award and BAFTA, however, is Todd Haynes‘ new masterpiece, Carol. Not exactly a biopic, but certainly a very personal story from the pen of crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, this charts the extraordinary romance between a high society married woman (Blanchett) and a shop girl (Rooney Mara) in the oppressive 1950s. Colours and emotions are heightened throughout, and particularly in the opening Christmas sequence where a chance glance across a New York department store ensures Carol and Therese are immediately and irrevocably drawn to each other. “What a strange girl you are, flung out of space,” exclaims Carol on their first lunch date together, and Mara conveys just the right amount of doe-eyed adoration as Therese, the aspiring photographer, as she falls under the older woman’s glamorous spell. Phyllis Nagy‘s script hits just the right note too. Mara channels early Audrey Hepburn; Blanchett is variously forward and alluring, yet guarded and tentative, with another great foil in the shape of the always dependable.
Sarah Paulson as her old flame, Abby. Cold, snowy landscapes and disdainful male partners force Therese and Carol further towards each other, the latter giddy and girlish despite her sophistication. Sleek lines, and period colour palettes of rich reds, greens and browns are reminiscent of Edward Hopper, especially when they haunt motels and diners. Might Todd Haynes be as Oscar worthy as his star?
Perhaps Carol’s only serious competition, especially for the BAFTA Best Actress award, comes from National Treasure Maggie Smith in another biopic, The Lady In The Van, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Based on another National Treasure, Alan Bennett’s account of Miss Shepherd, an elderly woman who parked her vehicle in his Camden driveway and never left, this story initially graced the National Theatre stage, but comes to life more fully here. One reason is the clever device of Alex Jennings as Bennett times two. He is both Bennett “the writer” and Bennett “the liver”, and they converse and argue with each other, as he’s hamstrung by not wanting to offend, even though Miss Shepherd (Smith) is cantankerous, ungrateful, smelly, judgemental and (according to snooty neighbours) bringing down the price of their North London properties. Smith has a ball as the mysterious traveller, hoarding things, dispensing pithy putdowns and generally making her host’s life a misery especially since he’s also trying to look after his own mother up North. Stay to the end to see Alan Bennett himself make a cameo appearance, but you can also play ‘spot-the-History-Boys-star’ throughout, as Hytner has gathered up pretty much every living actor who graced his earlier film of a Bennett play. Frances de la Tour? Yes! James Corden and Dominic Cooper? For sure! But also look out for Russell Tovey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jamie Parker, Samuel Anderson, Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett…
Unsurprisingly there’s more delicious dialogue, rather more Howard Hawks than Alan Bennett, in Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo, written by John McNamara. Like Suffragette, it’s about another set of individuals punished for their beliefs, but set some three decades later in conservative, capitalist Hollywood. It centres on Dalton Trumbo, the highly successful screenwriter robustly played by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), working day and night, cigarette-holder always in use under his ‘tache, typewriter perched over the bathtub, insistent jazzy soundtrack swirling in the background. Trumbo is a man of principles, but he also has a family to support, so his life is thrown into chaos when he’s blacklisted by the film industry for refusing to testify against his peers. It’s the height of the Cold War and Trumbo’s fellow ‘commie’ Edward G Robinson sees his acting roles dry up overnight and is forced to compromise. Trumbo and the rest of the ‘Hollywood 10’ find there’s suddenly no work, much to the glee of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, beautifully channelled by Helen Mirren, assisted by everchanging millinery and snappy oneliners. Only hack producers like John Goodman, in another scenestealing role, will take him on. But only at the cheapest rates and with no credit. So when Trumbo writes Roman Holiday and other awardwinning hit movies, the likes of Hedda are floundering as they seek to find who penned them. Could Cranston add an Academy Award to his four Emmys for Breaking Bad?
The ambitious, but flawed biopic Black Mass from Scott Cooper boasts Johnny Depp as notorious south Boston crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. And he’s all bad hair, bad teeth and casually bossy brutality, but somehow Depp still doesn’t seem quite right as a man who made the city and its cops bend to his will for decades, leaving a bloody trail of victims in his wake. And maybe this feels like a cover version of previous gangster flicks precisely because Whitey himself is treading in the welltrodden and wellfilmed footsteps of his criminal predecessors. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a good fist of playing Whitey’s brother, Billy, who chooses to rule the city a different way, by becoming state senator. In the middle are bent lawmen like John Connolly, the Bulgers’ boyhood friend, deftly played by Joel Edgerton, who happily gets rid of incriminating evidence or inconvenient witnesses on Whitey’s behalf, until he can’t cover his tracks any longer. Meanwhile whistleblowers and informants gather, notably Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks, all blank face and seething bitterness.