It’s not often I turn to a complete stranger (I am a Londoner, after all) and whisper, “I’ve only eaten free Green & Black’s chocolate and baked goods from Costa all week. I think I’m dying”. It’s even rarer for this opening gambit to elicit a sympathetic smile and a “I know what you mean” in response. Such is the emotional state we are to be reduced to in the home stretch of the 58th London Film Festival, the busiest I have ever seen. After all, I am seeing a mere 13 films (not including shorts) in 6 days; other, hardier souls have been trapped in Leicester Square for the full twelve.
So, my long weekend begins with Love is Strange – a feature which came to my attention when the MPAA rated it R for no fucking reason whatsoever apart from the fact that it’s about a gay couple. I like John Lithgow, I love Alfred Molina, so this was a no-brainer to catch. And it doesn’t disappoint – the sweet tale of a couple who have been together for nearly forty years – but are only now finally able to formalise their union – at times threatens to tip into sentimentality, but manages to teeter away at the right times. It’s a simple tale of what happens when a couple are forced to live apart through no fault of their own, and the pressures this puts on their family ties. It’s light on story but makes up for it with excellent performances; Molina and Lithgow you would expect, but also from Marisa Tomei, who shines as the slightly spoilt writer who eventually finds a sudden intrusion into her family life too much to bear.
On to the next film, a Norwegian comedy (!) 1001 Grams. This was a complete wildcard as I just liked the description in the brochure and it is also Norway’s official submission to the Best Foreign Film category at next year’s Oscars. It starts off brightly enough – a young scientist attends a Parisian conference on the actual weight of a kilo, which apparently depends on many factors, such as whether the weight in question has been touched or not. But that one slight joke tries to sustain a whole film, and when it realises that it won’t stretch far enough, it throws in a tragedy and a forced love interest to try and shore things up. The problem was, I ended up not caring for these shoehorned plot points, and just a few days later I can barely remember anything about the film. Definitely one of the more forgettable experiences of the festival.
On then, to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Or, to give the film its full title, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, for this is an edited version of two full length sides of a marriage in crisis, Him and Her. Thus, in his debut feature-length film, director Ned Benson does what Quentin Tarantino has never been able to – swallow his pride and edit together two films to form a perfectly coherent and satisfying single feature. And it is wholly satisfying; a surprisingly stellar cast including James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and an excellent Bill Hader elevate what could have been a sappy mess into a parable about what happens when you don’t communicate in a long-term relationship (this and Gone Girl would make an excellent first date double-bill for sadists, I feel). Well-plotted and with some surprises along the way, I left feeling like I actually wanted to watch the Him and Her versions as well, and I will seek them out when they arrive on Netflix. Side notes: I met James McAvoy here and he was lovely. I can be cool around famous people for about 5 seconds.
The next day – Saturday – brought a few surprises. Going in, I was not sure what to expect from any of the three films I was watching that day. And given that they included the new film from Michael Winterbottom and an Aussie action-comedy starring Simon Pegg, I did not expect the film that I would still be thinking about even now to be a drama about gangland Brixton.
Honeytrap is loosely based on true events; centred on Layla, a recent immigrant from Tobago who comes to live with her mother on a council estate in south London. Immediately she feels out of place – her mother (who seems to have got thoroughly used to not being a parent in Layla’s absence) can’t or won’t buy her any new clothes to replace the ones she has grown out of, so she steals outfits to fit in with the other girls. This desperation to be accepted seems to pay off when she is eyed up by a hot local rapper, but the attention soon turns into something much darker. Director Rebecca Johnson has spent 10 years working with youngsters in Brixton, making films with them, and it shows – there is an easy naturalism to every performance (she told me that only the main players actually went through a casting process – many were picked from the estates she has been working on for a long time) which makes the inevitable denouement much worse. Only when it’s far too late does Layla realise the consequences of her action; she (and we) can only watch in horror as the inevitable denouement plays out before our eyes and the situation spirals away from her, out of her control. It’s a horrifying, powerful film that I can imagine being shown as a vital part of the schools curriculum, and one that I would urge everyone to watch if possible – this is British talent at its best, in front of and behind the camera.
So perhaps a little unfairly, I went into The Face of an Angel expecting great things. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and “loosely” based around the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, the film does not directly address the murder but rather the media reaction to it. This is done by using the rather clever framing device of focusing on a filmmaker, Thomas (Daniel Brühl, watchable as ever) as he researches the murder in order to, well, make a film about it. The problem with using Thomas as a framing device is, he should never really be the focus of the story; he should be presenting another way of thinking about it. And although the films starts this way – Thomas hammers home the point that everyone is obsessed with the alleged murderers but they forget someone actually died – by the time a Return of the King-esque stream of apparent endings comes along, he does become the focus, and the film loses its way. This is more of a lament of the media, complete with the obligatory caricatures – the slimy Daily Mail journo who embellishes his stories, the American who holds court in the cafe waiting for the actual courts to make up their mind, the local expert. Winterbottom’s goal here is clearly to hold up a mirror to these people, and to let us all know that they should be under scrutiny as well as the accused. But the sad truth is, they wouldn’t exist if we did not want to know every seedy detail in cases such as these. Inevitably, no-one ends up very likeable in the film – except for Cara Delevingne’s character Melanie, who is a bouncy, cheerful English student. But ultimately you don’t feel like she is relevant to the story in any way.
Finally on Friday night, an Aussie comedy (!) about a hitman, Kill Me Three Times. Except it’s not really about the hitman (played by Simon Pegg), although I don’t blame the distributors at all for selling the film that way in the UK. Rather it’s about an elaborate revenge plot/insurance plot spun three different ways, which ends up going awry, as all the best plots do. It’s pretty smart for an action comedy and did conjure up memories of Grosse Point Blank at times (Pegg did say in the Q&A afterwards that Martin Blank is his favourite on-screen assassin), albeit played out against stunning Australian scenery. You won’t remember much about it when it’s over, but it’s an entertaining ride for an hour and a half, and the action is enjoyably messy.
Sunday, the final day, brings a certain melancholy and simultaneous relief over everyone – the poor girl introducing Carol Morley at the screening of The Killing in Hackney looks like she is about to keel over. Which is appropriate, seeing as a main theme in The Falling is exactly that – Abbie, a promiscuous young student at a girl’s school in the 1960s, falls pregnant and starts to suffer from fainting and fits. Soon enough her group of friends all come down with this mysterious affliction, with less reason. I was a big fan of Morley’s previous feature, Dreams of a Life – an excellent documentary about a woman who lay dead in her flat for three years – but this failed to ignite any interest in me whatsoever. The highlight is an excellent performance by Maxine Peake as the agoraphobic mother of one of the girls (played by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones – sometimes decent, but sometimes quite wooden). The film does pick up towards the end, but unfortunately the denouement needs more development beforehand to sustain it, and it never quite gets there.
And finally, the last film of the festival altogether, Fury. I have a feeling that we will go into this more in this week’s podcast, but as a personal note I thought the performances were excellent, even though the film as a whole doesn’t quite reach the heights of great war films. The revelation for me was Shia LaBeouf, playing a meaty role thoughtfully (although to be perfectly honest, I have never seen him in anything outside Transformers and Indiana Jones, and I’d prefer to forget both of them). If this is where being a bit “kooky” gets him, then more power to his elbow.
Thanks for reading, and see you next year.