By Deborah Allison.
One of the strengths of the BFI London Film Festival has always been its accessibility. Although press and industry passes are available, it is designed mainly to cater to the film-going public. This ideology is reflected in its varied but unpretentious programming, which features strands calculated to cater to all ages and tastes. Mainstream and art house titles sit side by side amidst the headlining gala screenings, while specialized programming strands focus variously on British, French, European, and world cinema, along with experimental, short, and classic films. Debates, book launches, talks by leading filmmakers, and events for families and schools, add further to the wealth of offerings, with highlights including directors Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Michael Winterbottom (Trishna) and Miranda July (The Future) discussing their latest cinematic offerings.
In a festival boasting over 300 titles, it’s hard to catch more than a small percentage of the treats on offer, and I certainly missed a fair number of the films on my wish list. Nevertheless, the thirty-odd film and events that I managed to attend provided far more pleasures than disappointments. Encompassing films from new and established filmmakers, documentary and fictional works, literary and theatrical adaptations, and works based on intriguing original screenplays, the variety was dizzying.
It was a particularly good year for theatrical adaptations, with several occupying prominent slots in the festival. The most enjoyable, for me, was Carnage, which saw Roman Polanski at the top of his form directing an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play about two middle class New York couples who meet to discuss the appropriate way to respond to a playground fight between their young sons. The women (Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster), are determined to work things out in a civilized manner, while their husbands (Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly) are palpably less enthusiastic about the process. As the discussion drags on, marital tensions become increasingly apparent, and sympathies between the four lead characters are subtly and repeatedly realigned. After the introduction of alcohol, it becomes increasingly evident that, contrary to the ways in which they perceive themselves, they are really no more grown up than their children. Flawlessly directed, and featuring topnotch performances across the board, what could easily have become a litany of navel-gazing histrionics is not only perceptive but also incredibly funny. It’s hard to imagine many art house films that could include a scene of projectile vomiting and not only get away with it but delight the audience at the same time!
The Ides of March also highlights the gap between apparent moral rectitude and more basic human impulses. Ryan Gosling, one of the most striking new acting talents of the past couple of years, takes the lead in George Clooney’s back-stage political drama. Playing a spin-doctor for a candidate in an important presidential primary (Clooney is in front of the camera for this role, but minimizes his screen-time with impressive restraint), his initial idealism is rapidly kicked into reality by the revelation of the dirtiness of the whole process. Back-stabbing campaigners and journalists and the shady personal life of the political candidate combine to present a less than salubrious portrait of contemporary politics. It’s all good fun, and performances are uniformly excellent (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei are amongst the impressive supporting cast). Even so, there’s a degree of pompousness whereby one senses that the Clooney et al feel they have something terribly important to say. Maybe they do but, quite honestly, we’ve heard it all before. The film is bound to generate comparisons with Clooney’s highly acclaimed Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) but, whilst the quality of the acting and direction are as excellent as they were in that film, the overall product is less distinctive and compelling. It’s still well worth the watch, providing one’s expectations are not set too high.
Politics take center stage again as Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with a topical update of Shakespeare’s fine but relatively neglected play, Coriolanus. Fiennes also takes the title role as a war hero turned politician who struggles to maintain the support of the populace in a strangely (but workably) abstracted ‘Rome’ that (set in the Balkans) is clearly designed as a metaphor for more recent international conflicts. The modern setting and dialogue are brave moves that work well for the most part and, in a story that hinges upon the clash of male egos, Vanessa Redgrave’s performance stands out in an important supporting role.
Also worth a look, although, to my mind, less successful overall, is Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, which screened in the prestigious Closing Night Gala slot. Davies revisits the familiar territory of his cherished post-war Britain in this adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play. Rachel Weisz puts in a strong performance as Hester Collier, a woman brought to the verge of suicide by her part in a crumbling love triangle. Although most of the drama unfolds in a run-down lodging house, in fetishizing every detail of the period, Davies, aided by Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography and James Merifield’s standout production design, succeeds in creating a ravishingly beautiful film. With a stripped down script and theatrically styled performances, the film works less well on a dramatic level, and the self-obsessed Hester proves increasingly difficult to sympathize with. For all its qualities, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Davies’ adaptation represents a classic case of style over substance.
Literary adaptations scored well, with Lynne Ramsay’s well-paced screen version of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling We Need to Talk About Kevin picking up the award for Best Film. John C. Reilly (also seen in Carnage) acquits himself well here, too, and the various actors playing Kevin at different ages form an uncannily convincing succession, but the film really belongs to Tilda Swinton, who excels in the main role. The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne from a novel Kaui Hart Hemmings, also met with a warm reception. With his wife in a coma after a surfing accident, Matt King (George Clooney) is forced to reconnect with the two daughters for whom he has hitherto found little time. The revelation that his wife had been planning to leave him for another man emphasizes just how disconnected from his family he had become. With his two daughters and the elder’s endearing dufus of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) in tow, he embarks on a journey to track down his wife’s lover and, in the process, is brought closer to the girls while beginning to find a way to let go of the past. Sweet, funny, and moving, Payne’s first feature since Sideways (2004) is unlikely to disappoint.
Amongst other notable adaptations screened was Headhunters (Hodejegerne), a vastly entertaining Norwegian black comedy thriller from a novel by Jo Nesbø, in which an art theft goes horribly wrong, with tensely and comically played out consequences. Dominik Moll’s French-language adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ 1796 novel, The Monk (Le moine), also made for intriguing viewing, despite failing to live up to the full potential of its source material. Vincent Cassel plays Ambrosio, a paragon of virtue until beguiled by a newly arrived novice. There are too many staid scenes where the plot is explained through lengthy conversations and, when things finally kick off, the excesses of the novel are rendered with disappointing restraint. Yet the film’s best scenes, which feature the novice encased in a creepy full-head mask that conceals a devastating secret, are dreamlike and fascinating, and remind us why the novel was so beloved of the surrealists. Another canonical English novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, has been subjected a far looser adaptation by Michael Winterbottom, who transposes Thomas Hardy’s nineteenth century story to modern India, in Trishna. Although suggesting an interesting parallel between the social changes born of England’s industrial revolution and those taking place in India now, the heavy reliance on improvisation that worked so well in some of the director’s other films yields relatively limp results this time round.
The documentary strand boasted a raft of very strong titles. Although I was disappointed to miss Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, which took this year’s Grierson Award, I had the fortune to catch Dreams of a Life (also shortlisted for the award). Inspired by the discovery of the body of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent at her home a full three years after her death, Carol Morley set out to discover more about Vincent and to try to understand how she could have come to be forgotten so completely by family and friends. Raising far more questions than are answered, this haunting film encourages us to reflect on own lives and underscores the fragility of the people and relationships we so often take for granted. While I also failed to catch the acclaimed Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, based on Swedish news footage of the American civil rights movement, I found a happy consolation prize in Sing Your Song, which charted the career and growing political activism of actor and singer Harry Belafonte before, during, and after this period. A surprise appearance of Belafonte himself for an introduction and post-screening Q&A made for a memorable evening. 1960s America also featured in the very different Magic Trip, based mainly on restored footage by Ken Kesey, in which he, Neal Cassidy, and others made a drug-fuelled coast to coast trip in a psychedelically-decorated bus. A sequence of abstract animation by Imaginary Forces, designed to illustrate Kesey’s first LSD trip, provided an engaging interlude.
At the very moment when audiences seem to be falling out of love with the latest cycle of Hollywood 3D movies, it had seemed that art house filmmakers and audiences had finally begun to embrace the format’s potential as Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) wowed critics and viewers alike. Yet two 3D offerings in the LFF suggest that the 3D bandwagon may be showing signs of strain in European and Asian filmmaking too. Neither Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night (Les Contes de la nuit) nor Takeshi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei) provide any great justification for the discomfort (and, for commercial audiences, the extra expense) of donning the 3D specs. Ocelot’s film takes us from Mexico to the Caribbean, to Africa, Tibet, and beyond, in a compendium of six loosely linked folk tales, all told using the director’s distinctive silhouette animation. His style, which is unique in modern cinema, is a pleasure to watch but poorly suited to 3D, which added no greater illusion of spatial depth than Disney achieved with their multi-plane camera in Bambi (1942). Miike’s offering features far less action than one would normally expect from a film with ‘Samurai’ in the title, and its central section is slow and somewhat pedestrian. Though stylishly shot, the 3D is underused here too and adds little to the experience.
alongside Carnage and Dreams of a Life as my top festival highlights were a disparate group of fiction features based on original screenplays, which included The Artist, Shame, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and The Day He Arrives (Bukchon banghyang). Given the amount of positive publicity it has received since its unveiling in Cannes, The Artist probably needs little introduction but, if Michel Hazanavicius’s love-letter to American silent cinema is not yet on your radar then I would advise you to seek it out at first opportunity. Hong Sangsoo’s The Day He Arrives is like The Artist, strikingly shot in black and white. Playfully self-reflexive and often very funny, this 79-minute picture is small but perfectly crafted. Centered on a young filmmaker visiting his ex-professor, it replays and varies situations and lines of dialogue in a clever and amusing fashion. It’s a little gem but, sadly, unlikely to find a wide audience outside the festival circuit.
Shame sees director Steve McQueen follow his acclaimed debut, Hunger (2008), by re-teaming with actor Michael Fassbender, who delivers another powerhouse performance in this drama about a man whose interpersonal relationships are largely limited to transient sexual encounters. This relatively ordered scheme is thrown into disarray by the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan) whose stint of kipping on his couch forces him to negotiate a whole different set of emotional needs from those for which he is equipped. Both the lead actors deliver impressively raw performances whose astonishing power balances well with the stylish but restrained direction and production design. Family tensions feature again in Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which Elizabeth Olsen shines as a young woman who flees a small rural commune/cult, taking refuge with her estranged elder sister and her sister’s new husband. As she struggles to adjust to this new way of living, and they to her presence, scenes of her increasingly erratic behavior alternate with flashbacks to her former life. For the most part, the film effectively maintains an atmosphere of subtle menace in a similar vein to the somewhat darker Winter’s Bone (2010) although, sadly, it goes a little off the boil toward the end.
These films, alongside some other good titles I caught (Austrian pedophile drama, Michael, musical classic, Bye Bye Birdie, psychological drama, Take Shelter, and period ghost story, The Awakening, to name but a few), and others I’d have like to have seen but didn’t (newly re-scored silent restoration, The First Born, and documentary, Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film are particular regrets), lead me to concur with the general consensus, which is that Sandra Henron’s swan song as Artistic Director of the Festival was a resounding success that has done herself, and London, proud.
Deborah Allison is a London-based cinema programmer.