After nine years under the directorship of Sandra Hebron, the London Film Festival has seen some substantial changes in the company of its new director Clare Stewart. Without wishing to do disservice to Hebron’s tenure, I’m pleased to say that most have been positive.
This year’s stripped-back festival ran for twelve days (compared with seventeen in 2011), but much of what it lost in length it gained in breadth of participating venues. Central London’s Leicester Square cinemas remained the main hub for high profile screenings, but the addition of four new cinemas, including Hackney Picturehouse and Rich Mix in East London and Screen on the Green to the North, along with an expanded programme at Ritzy Brixton to the South and Ciné Lumière to the West, ensured that this was truly a festival for the whole of London. This can only be a good thing. Press and industry delegates doing back-to-back movie marathons were spared complex travel logistics by a substantial slate of private preview screenings, while London’s wider film-going public benefited from an enhanced choice of films on their doorstep.
Another positive development, to my mind, was the decision to announce the main competition shortlist in advance. This increased the level of discussion and media focus on the competitors, and will surely enhance the festival’s profile in the years to come. Admittedly, the LFF remains relatively short of high-ranking premieres – the line-up of competition and gala screenings looked (as usual) suspiciously like a Cannes/Venice/Toronto redux – but in bringing the highlights of those festivals to the UK the programming has been generally successful. The case for quality over novelty is valid, and it’s an area in which the London Film Festival excels. Of the more than thirty films I saw, there were only a couple I considered poor – a far higher satisfaction rate than I’ve ever experienced in Cannes.
Although many films had previously featured in festivals elsewhere, this year’s LFF was topped and tailed by two highly anticipated pictures that helped to secure substantial media coverage. The opening night gala screening was Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, and the festival closed with Mike Newell’s new adaptation of Great Expectations. Neither will appeal to all tastes, but these very different films (both commanding some serious star power) felt like ideal choices for the slots they occupied.
Frankenweenie is an oddball film, which I liked very much. After the critically reviled and commercially lacklustre Dark Shadows (also 2012), Burton has redeemed himself (in critical terms at least) with this monochrome stop-motion expansion of the 2004 short film that reportedly got him fired from Disney. Centred on the resurrection of a beloved dead dog, this is not an obvious kiddie movie, despite its adherence to some of the tear-jerking conventions of popular family animations. In many ways, including its homage to some silver screen horror classics, it caters to a more adult audience. It must make Tim Burton very happy to be accepted back into the Disney fold for this curiosity made entirely on his own terms. There aren’t a lot of directors wielding sufficient influence to make an expensive grey-and-white ‘family film’. I doubt they’d let him do another one anytime soon, but I’m personally very happy that Frankenweenie exists.
While Burton throws out a substantial portion of the rulebook, Newell does quite the opposite. His adaptation of one of Dickens’ best-loved classics has much to recommend it – on paper at least. Co-produced by the BBC, with solid production values, and starring heritage film darlings Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, this has all the ingredients of a sure-fire box office hit. Nevertheless, it’s neither as poignant nor as fun as it could have been. Newell, whose last literary period piece was the indifferently received Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) and who is better known for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), plods earnestly through the major plot incidents, while diligently paying lip service to the Aged P. and other cherished minor characters. Lurching between awkward comedy and respectable banality, it fails to secure a place among the better adaptations of this much-filmed book. I’ll take the David Lean version any day…
Between these bookends lay a dizzying array of subjects and styles. This year saw a restructuring of the festival strands – a decision reaping mixed responses. Gala Screenings retained a high profile, now rivalled by Official Competition entries. Additional competition categories included First Feature, Documentary, and Best British Newcomer. Some established programming strands (Family, Shorts, Experimenta, and Treasures) remained in situ. Others traditional categories defined by national origins (New British Cinema, French Revolutions, Cinema Europa, and World Cinema) were axed in favour of thematic groupings (Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, and Sonic). This didn’t entirely work for me but, frankly, film quality is more important than the brochure page they’re listed on.
Anglo-American films dominated the Gala Screenings (occupying thirteen of eighteen slots) and, perhaps rightly, there was an especially strong British presence. Alongside Great Expectations, three films catered to a predominantly mature audience. Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, set in a retirement home for musicians, is a whimsical farce populated by much-loved British thesps including the septuagenarian Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, and (at time of shooting) the relatively youthful 69-year-old Billy Connolly. Although it’s far from pitch-perfect, the fine ensemble cast is reason enough to give this film a look. Song for Marion features another of Britain’s national treasures, Vanessa Redgrave, as a woman refusing to allow terminal cancer to dampen her zest for life. A change of pace for director Paul Andrew Williams (London to Brighton, The Cottage, Cherry Tree Lane), this saccharine confection demands hankies at the ready. Although replete with British money and talent, Hyde Park on Hudson is a American-set period piece, whose focus is oddly and not wholly successfully divided between Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray)’s secret affair with his distant cousin (Laura Linney) and his 1939 visit from the King and Queen of England (Olivia Colman and Samuel West). My favourite thing about it was Roosevelt’s bookshelves, which definitely didn’t come from IKEA. I want them!
Other British Gala Screenings included Sightseers, a highly enjoyable black comedy from director Ben Wheatley, which, following the critically acclaimed Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011), confirms his place as a rising star. A Liar’s Autobiography saw the late Graham Chapman’s memoir brought to the screen by fourteen different animators, in sections featuring a giddying range of styles. Despite some terrific animation work, the film seems sadly less than the sum of its parts, and proves far less entertaining than one might hope or expect from a film centred on this talented ex-Python. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, occupying the Debate Gala slot, is Sophie Fiennes follow-up to the offbeat, intelligent, and humorous Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), with Slavoj Žižek taking centre stage once again. This year’s Archive Gala screening was The Manxman – the finale of a major BFI restoration project of Alfred Hitchcock’s silents and of a full retrospective of his work at screened at BFI Southbank. Gala highlights from outside the UK included Ben Affleck’s Argo, a gripping fact-based drama centred on an audacious plan to rescue six American hostages from Iran in 1979, and Michael Haneke’s much-lauded and Palme d’Or-winning Amour.
The Main Competition offered a far more international array, with contributions from Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Mexico, as well as the UK and US. Films from established auteurs such as François Ozon (In the House), Deepha Mehta (Midnight’s Children), Michael Winterbottom (Everyday), and Sally Potter (Ginger and Rosa), rubbed shoulders with those of noted but less established filmmakers such as Pablo Larraín (No) and Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths), and debut directors including Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) and Daniele Capri (It was the Son).
For the most part, films by the older generation of directors did not represent career high points, but all had much to recommend them. Ozon’s adaptation of a stage play by Juan Mayorga features a raft of very fine performances, with Fabrice Lucini and Ernst Umhauer standing out in their respective roles as a jaded literature teacher and his bright but dangerously manipulative new student. Winterbottom’s latest feature is a slender affair, which charts the passing of time as a working-class mother pays a series of visits to her imprisoned husband. Shot over a five-year period, one of its most arresting features is the spectacle of their children growing up, while Shirley Henderson supplies a compelling lead performance. Potter, like Winterbottom, has had a much scrutinised though chequered career. Ginger and Rosa not only returns her to the critical spotlight but is also her most accessible film. Unfolding in early-60s London under the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this coming-of-age drama captures the emotional angst of adolescence as its heroines grapple with the complexities of dawning adulthood, and new conceptions of freedom and responsibility. Elle Fanning’s career-making central performance as Ginger stands out amid strong support from an impressive ensemble cast. Only Jacques Audiard had his best work on show here, with Rust and Bone – a fascinating drama tracing the evolving relationship between an injured whale-trainer (Marion Cotillard) and a struggling single father (Matthias Schoenaerts) – garnering a well-deserved competition win.
Other competition highlights included End of Watch, an edge-of-your seat cop thriller whose real highlight (in line with other competition films) was its superior performances, and the humour and naturalism of the banter between lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Lore, the second feature from director Cate Shortland (Somersault) also offered much to admire in its depiction of a group of siblings on an arduous journey across post-war Germany. Among so many treats, the painfully unfunny Sicilian-set ‘black comedy,’ It Was the Son, proved the only real disappointment of the competition selection.
Elsewhere, the breathtaking Beasts of the Southern Wild added to its burgeoning collection of international festival prizes by taking the crown in the First Feature Competition, while Mea Maxima Culpa, a damning indictment of the Catholic Church’s ineffectual response to child abuse by members of the clergy, was awarded the Grierson Prize for documentary. The title of Best British Newcomer went to writer-director Sally El Hosaini for her London gang drama, My Brother the Devil. I didn’t see it, but everyone assures me that I should.
As always, some of my personal favourites occupied less hallowed slots, illustrating the richness of the offerings throughout all festival strands. I’ll limit myself to three particular standouts. Robot and Frank, screened in the ‘Love’ strand, is a touching comedy by debut feature director Jake Schrieier. Frank Langhella stars as a retired cat burglar on whom his son bestows a care-robot to support him as his memory fails. Frank’s initial antagonism dissipates rapidly when it emerges that state and federal law don’t feature in his new companion’s programming, and that Frank may just be able to teach him a thing or two. The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and appropriately placed in the ‘debate’ strand, is based on an inflammatory subject matter, which is handled with intelligence and sensitivity. It charts the devastating effect on the life of a popular infant-school teacher (played by the ever-reliable Mads Mikkelsen) after a spurious accusation of paedophilia becomes a witch-hunt. Like Mea Maxima Culpa, its timing may have added resonance for UK audiences hooked by the child abuse scandal surrounding late British TV-presenter Jimmy Savile; Vinterberg’s measured account makes for a stark and welcome contrast to current tabloid outpourings. Finally, a splendid restoration of The Big Gundown, a largely-forgotten 1966 Spanish-Italian western, starring Lee Van Cleef and directed by Sergio Sollima, proved a thoroughly entertaining romp containing a political message but scarcely a trace of political correctness. Treasures programme adviser Clyde Jeavons explained that he always tries to include a western in the line-up “because I like them.” Bravo, Mr. Jeavons, bravo!
Deborah Allison is a London-based cinema programmer, and the author of The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom (Lexington Books, 2012).