In the year of London 2012, the 56th London Film Festival is exploring the capital, from Dickensian Smithfield via the brutalist Barbican to modern-day Hackney.
The 56th London Film Festival 2012 by Mark Wilshin
2011 may have been the year of Rachel Weisz, but this year it’s the Burton-Bonham Carters bookending the 56th London Film Festival with gala screenings of Tim Burton’s animated 3D horror-tastic Frankenweenie and closing with Mike Newell’s lush Great Expectations. Last year’s festival, curated by Sandra Hebron and topped and tailed with Fernando Meirelles’ 360 and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, combined an extrospective worldliness with a resolute Britishness. This year Clare Stewart has opened the London Film Festival up to cinema lovers from all of London’s far-flung boroughs. And while it may have shortened in length, the festival’s increased in scope, with cinecast streaming all over the UK and screenings in 13 London venues. Splicing up the festival vertically rather than horizontally into genres such as Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey and Sonic rather than across the geographical boundaries of yore allows world cinema to nestle alongside Hollywood studio productions. But the festival’s choice of galas puts forward a peculiarly strong-jawed Anglo-American face to the world, with only Amour, Ernest and Celestine and Chakravyuh to provide exotic spice.
Nevertheless, while squeezing in over 200 films from all over the world, the London Film Festival is a champion of British film, bringing new talent to the fore with Sally El Hosaini and her prize-winning Hackney-based My Brother The Devil, a delicious insight into modern Muslim family life and the unbreakable taboo of homosexuality. Also particularly outstanding were the performances from Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor. The story of two lovers in Liverpool exploring sadomasochism to excise ghosts of past relationships, Kelly + Victor is a gripping portrait of a modern romance, with all its hard-fought compromises and delicious new discoveries. But with its easy if emotional ending and all-too-perfect male lead, it’s too much of a vanity project, outdated with notions of the femme fatale at its breathless centre. Scott Graham’s Shell, set in the windswept Scottish highlands, is a delicate and atmospheric piece, of petrol station encounters and paternal closeness. But with its incestuous kiss and suicidal conclusion, it comes to a rather pat and abrupt ending. And following his success at the festival last year with his ghostly The Awakening, Nick Murphy takes on another genre piece with Blood – this time the police procedural put through the ringer with two brothers on the wrong side of the law. Starring Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham, it’s a taut dance of death on either side of the thin blue line, but its rapidly evolving plot and cartoon characterisation betrays its TV genesis.
Great Expectations is a lavish, colourful and opulent affair. And while it’s a brave man who takes on David Lean’s 1946 original, with his cast of heavyweights including Ralph Fiennes, Sally Hawkins and Helena Bonham-Carter, Mike Newell manages to keep critics at bay. It’s extravagant in its grimy, gothic excesses, as befits its Dickensian story, and at times almost too fashionable. But it’s not all surface. And even if there’s nothing particularly innovative about it, compared with Andrea Arnold’s evocative Wuthering Heights, still it keeps the fiery heart of the novel’s money-master benefactors burning. Barnaby Southcombe’s I, Anna featuring his mother Charlotte Rampling in the starring role, is a curious beast. Beautifully shot and filmed around the Barbican’s Ink Building, it’s shocking, not least for the punishments Southcombe dishes out on his mother – both awkward fellatio and bad motherhood. And while its slow-burn whodunit and unconscious murderer might make even the most hard-boiled film-noirist feel slightly queasy, its psychological unravelling and Rampling’s unfamiliar fragility make I, Anna an enjoyable amble into the mouth of madness.
The French language fares just as well with Joachim Lafosse’s heartwrenching Our Children. Featuring a stand-out performance from Émilie Dequenne, A Perdre La Raison focuses on the claustrophobic world of an economic ménage a trois, where Murielle and her Moroccan husband are unable to escape the clutches of Niels Arestrup’s character’s confining generosity. One of the best films at the festival, François Ozon’s In The House is an exquisite romp – not quite the camp extravaganza that is Potiche, but an engrossing kaleidoscoping of fiction and reality set within the confines of a drab teacher-pupil relationship. And Jacques Audiard’s forthcoming Rust And Bone is a marvel of breathtakingly simple CGI effects, and with superb performances from Marion Cotillard and newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts, it’s a beautiful tale of man finding a commitment to love beyond the daily grind and the simple pleasures of the flesh. Love though is perhaps best elucidated in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning Amour. With beautiful performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as octogenarians in love, it’s a bittersweet tale of love in a time of decline.
One of the best documentaries at the festival, Sebastien Lifshitz’s Les Invisibles is a fantastic tribute to love on the front lines of gay liberation. Ageing and forgotten, his protagonists have fascinating histories. And while they often battled against the conservative conformism of yesteryear, their simple tales of striving for identity and love are universally rewarding. Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways runs along a similar trajectory, as Laurence, played with delicate precision by Melvil Poupaud, lives as a straight man in the process of becoming a woman. Hearts and relationships are broken, but Dolan’s story is told with such panache and gusto it’s impossible not to be swept along in its raucous delights. Sister, starring Léa Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein, who also participated in Ursula Meier’s previous film Home, are siblings scraping together a living with an underhand dexterity akin to Alain in Rust And Bone. It’s a beautiful film of people living on the brink, but one which ultimately transcends the hard graft of simple economics.
Of the African French language films, Tey is an oneiric tale by Alain Gomis of one man condemned to death living his final 24 hours. It’s beautiful and haunting, with a ruminating gentleness. Jeremy Teicher’s Grand Comme Le Baobab is undermined by a very Western sense of Africa, but it’s still a powerful reminder of the constant battle between education and tradition. Girls embattled by their surroundings featured heavily in this year’s festival, with Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda – Saudia Arabia’s first female-directed film, as the stand-out best. It’s a fascinating peek behind the burqa in Saudi Arabia, and one little girl’s determination to get a very unbecoming bicycle. Equally enjoyable are Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Eat, Sleep, Die – the latter a surprisingly uplifting Swedish tale of a Bosnian-born teenager desperate to find a job in a miserable economic climate. It’s a fate shared by many, and Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Here And There is a very touching tale of a Mexican family man living the American dream of self-sufficiency and upward mobility, but it’s a dream that keeps him away from his family and sees him repeatedly exiled to the States. Bence Fliegauf’s Just The Wind couldn’t be more different from his previous festival film Womb, with its depiction of the violence inflicted on Romanies in Hungary in 2008 as they struggle to survive. It’s a seething, simmering hotpot of tension, filmed with documentary-style honesty and starkly heartbreaking performances.
Of the documentaries, Jay Bulger’s Beware Of Mr Baker is a fair tribute to the genius drummer and belligerent rockstar enfant terrible Ginger Baker. It’s almost as much a film about a director on the make, but its self-depreciating slanging match with the vociferous musician turn it into an amusing lions-den encounter. The prize-winning Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God by Alex Gibney, who brought us the wonderful Enron, Gonzo and Taxi To The Dark Side, is a very moving documentary on the culture of secrecy within the Catholic church. It focuses on the victims from a deaf school, who for decades have been unable to make their voices heard, and lifts the lid on the Vatican’s priest-focused and all-pervasive silence towards paedophilia cases. Nick Ryan’s The Summit pieces together the story of a climbing disaster on K2 in 2008 when 11 mountaineers died. It’s ambitious, and has some interesting things to say on the participative nature of story, the power and responsibility of journalism and the tragic hubris of ill-prepared holiday climbers, but its focus on all of the survivors leads to an even-handed and painstaking, but unfocused reconstruction.
Tragedy struck many a chord at this year’s festival, and there were a surprising number of films dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. Mira Nair’s fantastic The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid, looks at the radicalisation of all sides after the fall of the World Trade Center. And with a remarkable performance from Riz Ahmed, it’s a thought-provoking challenge to the senses. Its cat-and-mouse conversation can at times feel a little forced, but its Scheherazade-style storytelling is nevertheless utterly mesmerising. Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Grassroots focuses on a music hack running for mayor following the fall of the Twin Towers, and while its ranting protagonist may have you running in the opposite direction of a ballot box, it has a quiet indie community-pulling-together charm. Catastrophe also looms large in Brillante Mendoza’s Captive which, despite an against-type performance from Isabelle Huppert, is unable to sustain the tension of a year-long kidnapping in the Philippines. Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt also sees a small Danish town fall apart when Lucas, played with throat-tightening intensity by Mads Mikkelsen, is arrested for inappropriate behaviour with a minor. Its concatenation of events may beggar belief, but its infernal atmosphere of Clouzot-style suspicion allows for a cautious but moving resolution, where childhood innocence is protected but adult scars inflicted by loved ones refuse to heal.
Love, in fact, fared badly in the festival’s selection. Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is a glimpse into a near future where the guilty burden of caring for elderly parents can be neatly anaesthetised with a state-of-the-art robot. The robot’s lack of moral compass gives former jewel thief Frank a new lease of life though, and armed with a killer script Robot & Frank is funny, surprising and moving. Abbas Kiarostami’s foray into Japanese cinema follows a surprisingly Iranian aesthetic, as it sketches a young woman’s aimless meanderings across Tokyo. Pushed between one man and the next, Like Someone In Love is the very epitome of put-upon indecision, but with its sudden violent conclusion, it’s a rather unsatisfying and impossible puzzle. Alongside Amour and Les Invisibles, the best love film is Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On, a ten-year gay relationship embattled by infidelity and drugs, but a tear-jerking reminder of the heart’s capacity to accept all manner of things, so long as the door remains open.
For children, Frankenweenie was the big-budget marquee-topper, and it’s a familiarly Burtonesque tale of suburban outsiders, riffing on old tropes of the horror genre. But for me, the best has to be Ernest And Celestine, a tale of unprejudiced friendship, as ancient childhood tale enemies, the mouse and the bear, become friends. There’s a lot to like, from its very French animation, its retro-futurism of whooshing pneumatic tubes and its macabre capitalist economy, peddling confectionery to schoolchildren on one side of the street and profiteering from their decayed teeth on the other. It’s charming, hilarious and just the right side of sugar-sweet.
There are so many more films to write about – Brandon Cronenberg (David fils) and his body horror Antiviral, all blotched and bloody flesh, but one-dimensional with its simplistic celebrity conceit. The Taviani brothers’ Berlinale-winning Caesar Must Die and its jail-bound dramatisation of Shakespeare’s play left me surprisingly cold, but there was plenty to redeem Ben Affleck’s Argo, including the wire-taut tension of US hostages going underground during the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the Hollywood in-jokes about the movie business. Ben Affleck miscasts himself as the Latino CIA agent, and despite a promising start, Argo falls into the disappointing trap of refusing to see Iran as anything other than a dangerous viper pit.
But it’s a sure-footed year for the London Film Festival. Like its safe-bet opening and closing galas, there are few clangers and few masterpieces, as perhaps befits the cautious conservatism of contemporary funding. But with attendances soaring, even if it is the big names pulling the crowds, there’s a whole world of cinema out there in London.
Dog And Wolf Awards
Best Feature Film: Wadjda
Best British Film: Kelly + Victor
Best Documentary: Les Invisibles
Best Actor: Melvil Poupaud (Laurence, Anyways)
Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Best Director: Ira Sachs (Keep The Lights On)
Best Camera: Thimios Bakatakis (Keep The Lights On)
The 56th London Film Festival took place between 10th and 21st October 2012