A full week in and my London Film Festival starts here. Huzzah! Actually it started on Tuesday, when I dragged my very jet-lagged self to the UK premiere of The Salvation. This film was going to have to be something special to prevent me from dozing off in my seat, and it didn’t disappoint.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Jon, a Danish settler in 1870s America. Tragedy strikes shortly after a long-awaited reunion, and the locals he has surrounded himself with for the past seven years betray him, leaving him to his own devices against a notorious outlaw. You may not have heard of Danish director Kristian Levring, but you’ll recognise many of the cast – along with Mikkelsen there are fellow Bond alumni Eva Green and Jonathan Pryce, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Douglas Henshall, and a small but striking performance by no less than Eric Cantona. It’s a lean, tense film with great performances throughout the cast – special mentions to Mikkelsen who is excellent as ever, but also to Green, who handles a difficult role exceptionally well. The usual Western tropes – revenge, horses, the climatic shootout – are no less effective in a Danish film made in South Africa than they would be in a Hollywood production. Reviews appear to be mixed with many correspondents bemoaning the films clichés, but surely their existence in a film made by someone outside the inner circle is a promising sign.
Wednesday saw the screening of Wild, which I wasn’t sure about seeing initially, but decided to go for based on Oscar buzz around Reese Witherspoon’s performance. She plays Cheryl Strayed, a divorced drug addict who decides to hike 1000 miles solo on the Pacific Crest Trail, and we learn about her life so far in flashbacks along the way. As you’d expect, most of the film is hung on Witherspoon’s performance, and she doesn’t disappoint, channelling the obvious talent which has already seen her win a Best Actress Oscar to produce a portrayal of a woman damaged by circumstance and her own decisions, both in the hiking sequences and in flashbacks which go back many years. Obviously the film is a little thin on plot but worth seeing for its redemptive nature and for Witherspoon’s excellent performance – I would not be surprised to see her name on many Best Actress shortlists between now and February.
After that uplifting tale came In The Basement, bringing me back down to (below) Earth with a bump. Simply put, this is a documentary about what Austrian people do in their basements, presumably to convince the world that not all of them are like Josef Fritzl. The participants range from the fairly normal (model train set, drums, teenage hangout, tiny swimming pool) to the truly odd and disturbing. There’s the middle-aged woman who has an endless line of unsettling, lifelike dolls of babies, and coos over them as if they were real, in scenes reminiscent of Dawn French’s character in Psychoville. There’s the couple who are in an S&M relationship for whom, it is ominously explained, the basement is where the really nasty stuff (graphically shown) happens. And there’s the nice-seeming elderly man who plays in a brass band, but likes to relax in his basement surrounded by his fellow players and his large collection of Nazi memorabilia. The film is presented without narration, and in some sequences without any interaction at all from the participants, which means you sometimes don’t have enough information about them (one couple stand still surrounded by various scenes, including their bar) while the film lingers too long on others – the aforementioned Nazi and S&M couple being prime examples. I wanted to hear more from certain people who only got a few minutes of screen time, but what we got instead were gratuitous long takes of people being tortured for their own pleasure, which leads me to wonder whether the point of this documentary was really to give a wide-ranging perspective or just to go for cheap thrills. It was a noble experiment, but it very much came off as the latter.
Finally on Wednesday I attended the UK première of Whiplash. I’m happy to admit I knew nothing about this film until I got the programme. Upon attending the festival preview, where we got a brief clip, I immediately decided I wanted to see this film, and I’m so glad I did as it’s been my highlight so far. It’s the story of a young jazz drumming protégé, Neyman (Miles Teller), his brutal teacher Fletcher (JK Simmons) and the lengths people will go to in order to be, discover and mould truly brilliant artists from raw talent. The film is structured much like a thriller and is steeped in a clear love of jazz and music – it’s based on director Damien Chazelle’s own experiences – but is never inaccessible, the musical jargon employed is explained and demonstrated perfectly. We’ve seen Simmons as the tyrannical boss in Spider-Man, but this performance is on another level – blistering and searing, Fletcher looms over the whole film even when he’s not on screen, driving Neyman to practise until his fingers bleed. Even up against Simmons’ Oscar-worthy performance, Miles Teller more than holds his own as the talented young drummer who is obsessed with perfecting his craft. It all builds to an exhilarating climax which is filmed so wonderfully that it is more heart-pumping than any film about jazz has the right to be. No wonder it took the Audience Award at Sundance this year – I would be very surprised if that’s the only accolade it ends up with.
Thursday saw just one film – the UK première of Foxcatcher, another true story about brothers and Olympic gold medallist wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum – yes, that one) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). Mark is the younger brother and feels overshadowed by Dave, until he is offered a chance by John du Pont (Steve Carrell) to train at the Foxcatcher facility in du Pont’s enormous, inherited estate. Du Pont is not a self made man, and the shadow of his elderly mother looms large in his life; he desperately wants to impress her by training a wrestling team for the World Championships and Olympics, led by Mark. He wants Dave on the team as well, but Dave initially resists, puzzling du Pont as he is unable to buy something for once. I don’t want to give away too much; although this is a true story, try not to read about it before you see this film. Instead, let’s focus on the three performances from Carrell, Ruffalo and Tatum (Vanessa Redgrave and Sienna Miller make brief appearances, but this is primarily a film about sporting relationships). Ruffalo is excellent as the warm, steady older brother Dave, but you knew that anyway. Tatum is a great surprise as the overshadowed younger brother who is in many ways his own worst enemy. But the real revelation is Carrell, an actor known primarily for his comedy roles. If you’ve seen The Way, Way Back, you already know he is a convincing jerk. But this is a performance on another level – barely recognisable under a raft of prosthetics and reptilian false teeth, he excels as the other man who can’t escape the shadow of an older family member. He’s unpredictable, celebrating a win with his team one moment and them firing a gun in the gym the next. He’s a truly terrifying creation – a man who has never known what it’s like to not have what he wants, and you wait nervously to find out how he reacts. Again, all three performances here could be Oscar worthy, even Channing Tatum (yes, that one).
That’s all for today. Join me in a few days as I conclude this year’s LFF with reviews including Love is Strange, Kill Me Three Times and Fury.