FEEL IT – the tagline for the 56th BFI London Film Festival – carries with it a sense of the huge revitalisation of this world-renowned event brought in by new Festival Director, Clare Stewart.
This year featured a tighter twelve day schedule from 10-21 October in more venues than ever, while the main focus of the festival remained split between the cinema-hub that is Leicester Square and the BFI Southbank. The aim of this year’s restructuring and revival, according to Stewart, intended to “give a concentrated burst of film” across London with somewhat arbitrary but interesting new festival categories appealing to the emotions – love, debate, dare, laugh, thrill, cult, journeys, sonic (still not sure what that one’s about) and family.
This year’s selection of over 200 films was vast and varied. Legendary directors brought Gala screenings (Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie), veterans returned with follow ups to previous LFF successes (Cristian Mungiu with Beyond The Hills), and newcomers brought Oscar-hype with first features (Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild).
One&Other was in London, darting in and out of Odeon, Vue, Cineworld and BFI Southbank to see an array of upcoming films from around the globe.
Robot and Frank (Dir. Jake Schreier) – This American film set in the near future focuses on the life of Frank (Frank Langella), a retired jewel thief suffering from worsening dementia. When his son buys him a state-of-the-art caretaker robot, Frank’s opposition to this unwanted companion soon subsides when he realises the robot can help him relive his cat burglar glory years. Langella delivers a charming, moving performance as a dementia sufferer; both the light-hearted and heart-wrenching sides of the mental condition are touched upon. Peter Sarsgaard brings Frank’s companion to life with his voice acting. The film’s world is believable; robots are still distinctly robotic, modern mobiles are like transparent iPhones. Funny, touching and modest in scale (nearly every scene takes place in Frank’s small town), Robot and Frank is a poignant story about the value of memory.
For No Good Reason (Dir. Charlie Paul) – This fast, slightly mad documentary chronicles the life of seminal British artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson. Long-time friend Johnny Depp assumes the role of guide, narrator and interviewer, with additional contributions from Terry Gilliam, Richard E. Grant and numerous others. The film features a beautiful portrayal of Steadman’s studio and his work. To see Steadman’s artistic process up so close – his ideas springing from a paint splat to a gorgeous, disturbing visual feast – is inspiring; it’s so utterly personal. It’s also an honest film – the fond memories of times with Hunter are soon followed by solemn undertones. Steadman lingers on the gap left by Hunter; the “finality” of it all, as the artist puts it. Nonetheless, viewers and fans will be satisfied, uplifted by the film’s positive overall message: Steadman is and always will be an inspiration.
Beyond the Hills (Dir. Cristian Mungiu) – …and beyond all hope. A powerful tale of isolation, doubt, and religious (self-)deception. The Romanian director returned to LFF five years after his 2007 hit ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days’ with this subtle, slow-paced story, but one that may garner more praise in years to come. Beyond the Hills centres on the relationship between two young women who grew up together in the same orphanage (both played extremely well by first-time actors). Voichita now lives a quiet life in a hillside convent; Alina lives in Germany but decides to visit her friend. Soon, Alina’s utter dependence and (sexual) adoration for her childhood companion becomes apparent. She struggles to accept Voichita’s new life; an existence for God, not for her friend. Soon, Alina clashes with the convent’s Father and the other nuns begin to believe Alina is possessed. With themes reminiscent of Ken Russell’s The Devils, director Mungiu masterfully deals with issues of defeminisation, religious escalation and deception. What else can you do but become a demon when a whole convent is convinced that is what you are?
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin) – A gorgeous coming-of-age tale, this marshy dream world is charming but ultimately falls just short of its growing Oscar hype. In the post-Katrina Louisiana bayou, resilient six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in the sprawling ‘Bathtub’ with her boozing tough-loving daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry). The two travel around on a truck bed floating on oil barrels, engaging with the friendly and sometimes harsh forces of nature. But when Wink falls ill, waters rise and ancient giant warthogs called aurochs begin to invade the land, Hushpuppy begins a search for her lost mother. Despite all the film’s strengths and its incredible achievement given the shoestring $1.8 million budget, it never quite feels like Zeitlin captures a true sense of life, of being, in his fantasy world. Wallis’s extraordinary first-time performance steals the show, but there’s an element of vapid Neo-hippie mysticism in her dialogue: “Everything’s hearth is beatin’…and talkin’ to things in ways I can’t understand.” That makes two of us. Don’t believe the hype, but that’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable ride if you can accept the film’s feel-good, don’t-think-too-much aura.
Ginger and Rosa (Dir. Sally Potter) – This bland drama follows two teenage best friends living in 1960s London. Ginger (Elle Fanning) is concerned about the bomb; Rosa (Alice Englert) is concerned with love. When Rosa begins secretly sleeping with Ginger’s father Roland, Ginger struggles to cope with her feelings of worry, disgust and fear. Potter’s film never really deals with the contextual debate surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis; it’s merely a vehicle for dull debates over nuclear war, always somewhat out of place when mixed in with the film’s stronger concerns over Rosa and Roland’s affair. Elle Fanning gives a fantastic performance (she’s 13 playing 17), scene-stealing throughout the film. But it’s not nearly enough to save a dire script that fails to explore the complex family issues. Ironically, at one point Ginger quotes T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men (“This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”), which is exactly how this stuttering drama peters out.