Of the gathering awards contenders converging on the London Film Festival, Keira Knightley showed for Colette, in which she plays the 19th century writer who became a best-seller with her tales of Claudine but who, the film reveals, never got her dues as an author – her husband Willy took the credit – and who was a sexual trail-blazer amid the decadence of Belle Epoque Paris. The film looks great, zips along with an excellent script and Knightley is pretty good in it, good enough to snag some awards nominations, as is Dominic West as oafish Willy. Something’s missing, though, a slight absinthe, sorry absence, at its heart.
Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner brought back to life American politics of the 1980s with the story of Presidential candidate Gary Hart – played with defiant charisma by Hugh Jackman – whose campaign was derailed by a sex scandal. Remember the name Donna Rice?
This a gripping, talky piece of cinema with lots of minor roles played just perfectly (by the likes of JK Simmons, Kevin Pollack and Alfred Molina, and with Vera Farmiga superb as Hart’s suffering wife), it’s, reminiscent of Robert Altman and takes us into the newsrooms of The Washington Post and Miami Herald, as well as into the moral maze of modern politics. I’m not sure what light it throws on the current circus – perhaps some will be disappointed it’s not more pointedly anti-Trump – but it sure makes you wonder what’s really important when looking for our political leaders.
Such is the UK and Europe’s growing significance as world film making hubs, the Academy – yes, the Oscar people – held a reception at the National Gallery to welcome in its intake of new members from the region, many of them who were visiting for the LFF. Actors Nicole Kidman, Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet and the magnificent Mahershala Ali from Moonlight were there, as well as directors Luca Guadagnino, Pawel Pawlikowski and Yorgos Lanthimos, all joining Brits such as composer Nitin Sawhney, actress Olivia Colman, and BFI executive Lizzie Francke, and last year’s short film winners for The Silent Child, Rachel Shenton and husband Chris Overton, who used to be in the soap Hollyoaks but who are now definitely part of Hollywood. Academy President John Bailey stressed the importance of opening up the Oscars’ reach in order to better reflect the changing face of cinema and the faces who run it.
To that end, respect must go to the new Artistic Director of the London Film Festival, Tricia Tuttle, who deliberately sought parity of representation in the festival’s competition strands, so that competing in the Official Competition and First Feature Competition the gender balance was actually 50/50. After a year in which Cannes only admitted three female film makers and Venice, shockingly, only one to their main competitions, London showed you can do it if you try. Tuttle’s time at the helm has been noteworthy, her calm radiance a boon and she has been fabulous at every intro and event where I’ve seen her work it.
On my journey around the LFF in its second week, I came across two dysfunctional family dramas, both clearly indebted to the Daddy of the modern genre, Festen. Denmark’s That Time of Year is directed by Paprika Steen (who appeared in Festen, as did co-star here Lars Brygmann) and features a spiky family gathering on Christmas Eve, a film that’s both warm and funny as well as awkward and tragic. The Killing’s Sofie Grabol is terrific as a freelance priest and uptight mother – and if her jumpers as Sarah Lund became fashion items, I wonder if this film will do the same for her character’s neurotically tight, permed hairdo.
British maverick Ben Wheatley directs Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, featuring a family coming together on New Year’s Eve in a rented stately home on the Dorset coast. The cast is an impressive ensemble of British talent – including Charles Dance as a cross-dressing uncle, Doon Mackichan as an attention-seeking matriarch and Asim Choudry as a useless boyfriend – but at its heart (if indeed this film has a heart) are two fueding brothers, played by Neil Maskell and Sam Riley. There’s much to enjoy in its loosely improvised dialogue and in its Dogma-style simplicity but, for all the shouting and the boozing, I’m not sure it goes anywhere particularly dramatic. Maybe that’s the point – not every family event can have a revelation like the one in Festen. And this pair of films simply showed simmering resentments being aired and characters feeling all the better for it. I just hope your own forthcoming seasonal affairs go a little more smoothly.
The most monumental event of the LFF was surely Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which had its World Premiere in front of the Duke of Cambridge. Lord of the Rings director Jackson has been deep into the archive of the Imperial War Museum to bring to life a remarkable testament to the generation of men who fought the First World War. Jackson uses sound recordings of over 50 men, from privates to Colonels, and sets them to newsreel footage.recalling every stage of the war, from their enlistment and basic training, to their rations of bacon, their ailments (lice, trench foot), their kit bags and toilet arrangements, their cigarettes and beer, their sheer camaraderie and their occasional days off in the brothels and bars of rural France.
The results are shocking and moving, yet somehow entirely delightful, revealing a stoicism and pride in belonging, despite the unspeakable horrors of life in the trenches with the constant whistle of shelling, the stench of death, the squeak of rats.
You get as true a picture as has ever been made of the fields of Europe strewn with young men, a total mess of mud and murder. Jackson manages, through colorisation and sound techniques (he used lip readers to interpret the silent archive footage and has put voiced dialogue into mouths silent for a century), to make the so-called Great War live again, which could, of course, have been a terrible thing, but I think this maybe the film, after countless works of poetry, drama and cinema about it, that can finally bring its realities and horrors to life.
Yet what remains is perhaps surprising – there’s something so noble about the way he’s done it, with great admiration and empathy for the men who survived to tell their stories so vividly and with such clarity. There’s humour here, humility and patriotism, and some extraordinary faces and voices, our ancestors, ghostly avatars of people whose lives we can now know. And when our troops come face to face with the enemy across those deathly lines, the scenes are heart-melting ones of mutual respect and admiration, of recognising the humanity in a foe which has been created entirely by politics and rulers all thousands of miles away.
I hope every child in Europe gets to see this film. And I hope nobody ever has to make one like it again.
I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA again, and it’s another 50 percent better second time around, allowing me time to drink in the detail in the background of this wonderful film.
I enjoyed Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, the tale of murderous dress bought by Marianne Jean-Baptiste in a department store sale, somewhere near Reading. It’s a Tale of the Unexpected-style piece, very stylish and arch and with much to savour, not least MJB in her first major role in a British film since Secrets and Lies. Still, I’d love it if Strickland one day got to make a major work, free from the pastiches I feel he’s hiding behind.
Swoon-worthy was Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, the sumptuously woozy love story If Beale Street Could Talk (featured image), telling of a young couple in 1970s Harlem, Tish and Fonny, played deliciously by Kiki Layne and Stephan James (who’s shortly to be seen opposite Marianne Jean Baptiste and Julia Roberts in an Amazon series, Homecoming,)
When Fonny is imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit, their love is thrown into turmoil, especially when Tish learns she’s pregnant. ‘I hope nobody ever has to look at someone they love through glass,” she says, in just one of many heartbreaking pieces of dialogue lifted from James Baldwin’s book and filtered through Jenkins’ moody prism, with James Laxton’s luminous cinematography…
Maybe it’s all too tasteful, and kids like Tish and Fonny probably didn’t stick John Coltrane and Nina Simone on the record player, but such is the romance, the anger, the passion and the love in each shot, that I really didn’t care for such stickling realism – Jenkins is about the dream space in between; he creates a world you wish was possible, and just briefly, while his films last up on the screen, you can believe in the dream. I loved it.