Some 255 films from 77 countries will be screened at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday 10 October and runs until Sunday 21. This annual celluloid extravaganza has become a key event in the autumn film calendar and a showcase or many BAFTA and potential Oscar winners.
The festival opens with Steve (12 Years a Slave) McQueen’s all-female heist movie Widows, starring Viola Davis (based on Lynda La Plante’s television series about gun-blazing gangster wives who take over the business) and concludes with the world premiere of Jon Baird’s Stan & Ollie with Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, focusing on the famous comic duo in the twilight of their career, forced to tour seaside towns in Britain and suffer squalid guest houses, until their luck turns.
This year the LFF has an unprecedented 28 per cent of films in the programme that are directed by women, a very different picture from the Cannes or Venice Film Festivals, which had only one female-directed film in competition. While Europe and particularly France has supported female directors some of the most powerful cinema is coming from elsewhere, most notably Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, the bizarre story of a boy who sues his parents for having brought him into a world of such suffering and despair and Wanuri Kahiu’s controversial Rafiki, about a forbidden romance between the daughters of two opposing politicians, which is banned in its native Kenya.
The 2018 LFF has a particularly strong Treasures from the Archive section with several rarities including Emilio Fernandez’s Enamorada, a glorious story of love and revolution from the golden age of Mexican cinema. Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, said to one of the silent era’s greatest love stories starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, which should send film buffs into cinematic heaven and Ingmar Bergman’s little known High Tension restored for the centenary of the late Swedish director’s birth, which is an espionage drama that he requested to remain unknown during his lifetime. Standouts in the strand include Alexander Korda’s much-lauded biopic of England’s most infamous ruler The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton giving an Oscar-winning performance in the title role, Billy Wilder’s great comedy of errors and cross-dressing Some Like it Hot, with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and Edward F Cline’s classic comedy Western My Little Chickadee, with the once in a lifetime pairing of Mae West, Bette Lee and the incomparable WC Fields.
A portrait of a family in crisis is powerfully brought to life in Paul Dano’s accomplished 2018 directorial debut Wildlife (****) based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name and set in a quiet suburban Montana town. The Brinsons seem like an average American family: Jerry works at a local golf course, while his wife Jeanette helps raise their 14-year-old son Joe. It’s 1960 and the world is changing, especially definitions of happiness, family and the gender role in a household. When Jerry loses his job, Jeanette gets one as a swimming instructor, and Jerry decides to go and fight wildfires far enough away that he is basically leaving his wife and son behind. Joe though, longs for his father’s return, especially as he starts to see changes in his mother. She dresses and carries herself differently, and it is not long before an old wealthy man, Bill, enters their life, who may be able to offer them what they no longer have like stability and companionship, and Jeanette falls into his arms – and into his bed. This is a handsomely mounted emotionally rich drama that dares to go deep and confront what is going on in the hearts and minds of all three family members in an articulate manner, devoid of hysteria and sentimentality. Carey Mulligan gives a terrific performance, making Jeanette sexy but unstable, full of inchoate anger, clinging onto the facade of happiness by her fingernails, while Jake Gyllenhaal makes a strong impression as the brooding, volatile Jerry and Ed Oxenbould shines as their sensitive, owlish son Joe. A moving resonant piece of film-making that marks Dano out as a director to watch!
Court intrigue, assassinations and shady motivations abound in Zhang Yimou’s latest movie Shadow (***). In the court of the Pei Kingdom ruled by a seemingly petulant and cowardly King, the noble commander Yu goes rogue and counsels war against the neighbouring kingdom of Jing, who has captured the strategically important city of Jingzhai. The king ignores his advice preferring to sue for peace with the invaders and even offering them his beloved sister in marriage to seal the craven alliance. But Pei King cannot stop what is unleashed in the hearts of both his soldiers and his spirited sister. It is a battle that has been brewing for decades and now the time has come. Zhang here collaborates with House of Flying Daggers cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding to create a visually stunning design that gives a new look to the colour palette, using water calligraphy and constant references to the yin-yang symbol. The plot though is at times confusing, and there are some gory scenes. But it is well acted and the action sequences are choreographed with Zhang’s typical verve and imagination making creative use of an umbrella weapon that will be the envy of every Londoner.
Culture clashes within a rapidly changing country are highlighted in Darya Zhak’s feature debut Crystal Swan (***). We are in mid-1990s Belarus, a wrong fake phone number on a DJs forged American visa document threatens to slam the door shut on Velya’s dreams of escape to Chicago. She is forced to journey to that numbers residence in the backwater village of Crystal to cover her tracks but finds herself intruding on an unsympathetic family’s wedding plans. The film loses its sharpness in the middle, but Zhuk portrays, youthful desperation and defiance with a droll, absurdist humour and there is a standout performance by spiky lead actor Alina Nasibullina, whose electric blue wig offer illumination in the darkness.
Undoubtedly one of the most controversial films at the festival is Sam Levinson’s fast-paced, totally unique Assassination Nation (****) which delves into the idea of what would happen if a quintessentially American town descended into anarchy. It opens with a trigger warning for all ages, cautioning viewers about the incoming sensory assault that includes everything from murder and bullying to “fragile male egos”. The story, such as it is, revolves around the plight of Lily Colson (Odessa Young), an 18-year-old rebel student at Salem High School, who roams around with chic pals Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), while engaging in a clandestine sexting affair with an older man (Joel McHale) and keeping her clueless boyfriend (Bill Skarsgard) at bay. With a single incriminating piece of data put on screen her secret’s out along with everyone else’s. The scandal starts with major local figures – the mayor, the principal – finding their secrets revealed to the world by an anonymous online character. As secrets erupt, the society crumbles. This rambunctious on-the-nose indictment of the social media age fires on all cylinders and emerges as a sensory assault and bitingly prescient rally cry for the #MeToo era.
Two films also worth catching are: Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy (****) , a disturbing and hugely affecting drama that tackles the vicious cycle of sex trafficking in modern Europe, with a standout performance by Anwulika Alphonsus in the title role and Robert Green’s haunting documentary Bisbee 17 (****) an ambitious often frustrating, powerful account of a strike at a local mine in a small Arizona town from 1917 that still resonates today.
Woman At War
But the best film so far is Benedict Erlingsson’s delightful and charming Icelandic comedy Woman At War (****). The film opens with gorgeous shots of the rugged Icelandic countryside, where a woman short-circuits a string of power lines with a bow and arrow. Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is an independent, feisty 49-year-old eco-terrorist who roams the heath, striking back at the industrialisation that threatens her country, then hiding from the drones, infrared cameras and helicopters full of cops that try to track her down. And by the way, she’s also a popular choirmaster who is trying to adopt a four-year-old Ukrainian girl. And she has a twin sister, as well as a new friend who lives in the country with a loud dog and a bunch of sheep. Erlingsson is dealing with the elemental matters here – the destruction of the environment, the degradation of politics into a slideshow and the yearning for human contact – in a deadpan absurdist manner, without being solemn or didactic about it. This is an intelligent hugely enjoyable film that knows how to tackle urgent global issues with wry humour as well as a satisfying sense of justice.
In my second article at the end of the festival, I will look back at what have been the highlights and selecting the best in the fest!
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