Review: London Film Festival

The 64th BFI London Film Festival was like no offer before it, but it shows that cinema is far from dead in these testing times.

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No red carpets, no festival bar and little in the way of big screen premieres – this year’s London Film Festival was obviously like no other. But while the coronavirus put paid to all the glitz and the glamour, the festival’s presence both online and in cinemas across the country did mean it had the potential to reach a wider audience than in previous years.

Among the 58 movies on offer were a smattering of big name films, notably Pixar’s latest animation, Soul, about a music teacher and jazz musician who finds himself transported to another realm when he has a near-death experience, and Nomadland, starring the terrifyingly good Frances McDormand in a tale about people living on the road in America. Directed by the multi-award-winning visual artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, Mangrove opened the festival and was screened for free to audiences at cinemas in cities across the UK. The film tells the true story of the Mangrove 9, the group of black activists who clashed with London police during a protest march in 1970, and their highly publicised trial that followed.

There was definitely a muted tone to many of the other films on offer – or it certainly felt that way – lots of quiet landscapes, muted performances, and themes of loneliness and isolation. It might have been I was simply drawn to those films given my (and many other people’s) current state of psychological turmoil or something prescient in the films themselves. Maybe a bit of both.

Certainly with so many blockbusters delayed, this is the perfect time for the smaller films on offer at the festival to shine and there were some rich pickings to be had, such as the Irish drama Herself. Sandra (Clare Dunne) flees a violent relationship with her two young daughters and is temporarily housed in a hotel. When it becomes clear that the local council won’t be providing a permanent home anytime soon, she decides to build one herself, calling on new friends, including her employer (a brilliant Harriet Walter), for support.

Dunne not only takes the powerful central role in this stirring drama, but also wrote the script in collaboration with Malcom Campbell. The premise might seem a little incredulous, but Dunne’s writing and performance convince and this is a fresh look at an aspect of homelessness that is largely unseen. And while there are some harrowing moments, this is ultimately a hopeful film about a woman fighting against the system and a community of disparate people coming to her aid.

The world might feel like a dark enough place at the moment without the need for fictional scares, but there were some great frighteners on offer at the festival.

Relic, an Australian set-movie and debut feature from Natalie Erika James, is saturated in the usual spooky tropes such as a crumbling house full of deep dark shadows, but beneath it all is a more thoughtful film exploring the debilitating terrors of dementia on both the person suffering the disease and those caring for them.

When her elderly mother goes missing, Kay and her daughter Sam return to their family home. But as Kay searches the house she left many years before, her mother, Edna, mysteriously reappears, seemingly unable – or perhaps unwilling – to offer an explanation as to where she has been. As tensions grow between Kay and her daughter, Edna’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and volatile, and the three women get drawn ever deeper into the house and its terrifying secrets.

This is a claustrophobic film that’s full of dread, ramped up by a relentless soundtrack that creaks and groans along with the dilapidated house. It is, for the most part, a slow burner, treading a careful line between the supernatural and the real-life traumas that the family face. But the last 20 minutes or so reach a climax that is both scary and perplexing, leaving plenty of questions and a feeling of deep unease as the credits roll.

Then there’s Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s latest feature, which premiered at the festival. Rooted very much in his father David’s footsteps of near-future sci-fi and body horror, this is the tale of Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a hit woman-for-hire who hijacks other people’s minds and manipulates them to into carrying out murder-suicides for a shadowy corporate enterprise. The first half of the film is a taut thriller, in which Vos takes over the body of a man to kill his media mogul father-in-law (Sean Bean). Then things go horribly wrong and it becomes a fight for survival as the question of who is in control of who arises.

Like this year’s one big blockbuster, Tenet, there’s a neat near future concept at work here that could have bore some fun fruit. But again like Tenet, this film is determined to take itself very seriously indeed and there is little in the way of laughs, although a deliciously over the top  and gory finale did make me howl (though I’m not sure that was the intention).

There was more horror with Rose: A Love Story – a chilling take on the vampire tale set in a remote part of a snow-bound Lake District where a young couple, Sam and Rose, have hunkered down in a woodland farmhouse far away from anyone. It becomes clear that the reason for their isolation is Rose, or rather the “illness” she suffers. Despite this, with the help of some leeches, the pair seem to have a fairly idyllic life until an expected visitor threatens to shatter their world.

Like Relic, Rose is, for the most part, a slow burner and hardly fits into the category of horror at all. The threat of what lurks beneath their quiet life in the woods is what keeps the tension moving on and the on-screen chemistry between the lead pair makes this an engaging watch. The ending seems a little bolted on, however, as if writer Matt Stokoe suddenly felt the pressure to shift the film into more obvious territory for the genre.

The Lake District takes centre stage again in another muted, down-played drama, Supernova. After 20 years together, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker’s (Stanley Tucci) blissful life has been shattered following Tusker’s diagnosis with early onset dementia. Intent on spending as much time together as they can, the pair travel through the Lakes in their old campervan, visiting loved ones and returning to special places from their past. But as Sam and Tusker’s trip progresses, they are forced to confront the grave reality of their situation and rifts begin to emerge as they look at what the future may hold.

Once again, it’s on the onscreen chemistry that drives this film on. Firth and Tucci completely convince as a couple that have been together for a long time, finding one another both irritating and irresistible. And once again the ending seems a little rushed given the time and energy invested in the relationship throughout the film. But it raises some important questions about our right to make choices about our futures and the things we ask of those who love us.

Winner of the best documentary at the film festival, The Painter and the Thief opens with Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, who lives and works in Norway, creating a huge, beautiful painting that is then hung alongside another of her pieces in a gallery window. Minutes later we see CCTV footage of a man breaking into the gallery and leaving with two works of art in an act of jaw-dropping audacity. But this was no art thief at work and what unfolds over the course of the film is utterly engrossing and moving.

The thief is quickly revealed to be Karl-Bertil Nordland, an addict who has spent much of his adult life in and out of prison. Kysilkova confronts Nordland at the trial, asking him why he took the paintings. “Because they were beautiful,” he replies, revealing that he was at the tail end of a three-day bender when he stole the artwork, apparently on a whim, and now can’t remember what he did with them.

Kysilkova gets the thief to sit for her as payment and paints a portrait of him. The result moves him to tears, as if someone has truly seen him for the first time. And a strong, strange relationship starts to grow between the two. Benjamin Ree’s film unfolds like a love story and is told with compassion and rich humanity. It’s well worth seeking out when it’s properly released on 30 October.

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and The Legendary Tapes was another outstanding documentary. Written, directed by and starring Caroline Catz (who is clearly very enamoured with her subject), this is a look at the life of the pioneer in audio exploration and psycho-acoustics, Delia Derbyshire, who conceived one of the most familiar compositions in science fiction, the Doctor Who theme, while working in a BBC basement.

Splicing interviews, fictional drama and some wonderfully trippy soundscapes from Cosey Fanni Tutti, plus archive sounds from Derbyshire herself, this is a rich exploration of a woman outrageously neglected for her talents during her lifetime.

Catz is joyful as Derbyshire herself, playing it all with a knowing wink in her eye and never allowing Derbyshire to become a tragic figure, despite her alcoholism and the slow decline into obscurity that marked the end of her life.

Aside from the films, there was plenty more on offer this year, much of it for free. This included a massive range of short films from across the world, panel discussion and Q&A sessions. Much of this material is still available on the BFI website. And for those of us lucky enough (or geeky enough) to own the tech there was also an impressive selection of virtual reality material made available, which offered a glimpse of how filmmakers may be bringing us exciting material in the future. This included the immersive documentary Common Ground, a rich and powerful history of South London’s Aylesbury Estate. Darren Emerson’s film mixes 360 video, computer-generated environments and interviews with residents to examine how design, planning, dreams of utopian living and the political will of the day has affected ordinary lives.

Cinema may be facing the greatest challenge of its lifetime at the moment, but the range of material on offer at the festival, and the fact it even took place at all, is testament to the industry’s capability to weather this storm.

Main image: The Painter and The Thief

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