Some Reflections on the BFI London Film Festival 2019
Report by Carlie Newman
The London Film Festival 2019 has now finished. An especially good festival, there were some terrific films. Too many films to cover all here. Some have now been released but others will come out before the end of this year and be reviewed in the main Close-Up Film Reviews section and others in 2020 and will be reviewed then.
The LFF 2019 was one of the best of the recent Festivals in that there were a large number of very good films and others that were interesting. There was a good range of films. Here are some of my top picks:
The prestigious gala starting off the festival was the Opening Night gala, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. It was directed by Armando Iannucci and Dev Patel stars as David, giving a charming portrayal of the hero of the Charles Dickens novel. There are sympathetic performances from Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber and Tilda Swinton as Betsy Trotwood. Ben Whishaw shows his creepy side as Uriah Heep and Hugh Laurie is a sweet Mr Dick. We see how child labourers were exploited in very poor working conditions. Ianucci has explained that although it is set in the 1840s, he wanted the film to feel real for now. And I believe he succeeds.
The closing night gala was the International premiere of Martin Scorsese’s highly praised International Premiere of THE IRISHMAN. Looking at organised crime in the USA soon after the end of World War 2, it looks at the killing of the one-time popular Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa, played in the film by Al Pacino. The story is told by Frank ‘the Irishman’ Sheehan whose account of the sequence of events is what the movie is based on. We are shown episodes from Sheehan (Frank De Niro)’s past and in order to depict a young Sheehan as well as other cast members, a special type of CGI is used to de-age them. Good acting all round with excellent support from Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin (in a small but important part), Harvey Keitel and other Hollywood luminaries. Scorsesehas made a movie with high `production values; he is at the top of his career here.
A few years ago I saw a production of a bright, very jolly musical called OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR. This has now been made into a film called OUR LADIES. Directed by the Scottish director Caton-Jones, it tells the same story of five teenage choir girls from a Catholic school going wild in Edinburgh in the mid-90s.
Two of our best screen actors star as an older couple facing divorce in HOPE GAP. Directed by William Nicholson, we see Annette Bening and Bill Nighy reaching a crisis point in their marriage after 29 years. Son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) has arrived home for a weekend to be met by his father, Edward (Nighy) telling him he is leaving immediately. While Grace (Bening) is overwhelmed with grief at being left in her 60s, Edward just wants a quiet life with a different partner. Some witty one-liners and beautifully acted, this is a film worth looking out for.
MARRIAGE STORY also deals with divorce. Here we have a much younger couple who start by trying to arrange an amicable divorce between themselves in order to do the best for their 8-year old son. But it quickly descends into something of a battle when lawyers become involved. Director and writer Noah Baumbach uses his own personal experience to tell the story. You can see him trying to balance the two characters so that the man and woman have equal opportunities to show us their side. Scarlett Johnsson as the wife and Baumbach playing the husband are outstanding. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the two West Coast lawyers bring humour as well as grit to their roles.
SID AND JUDY is a documentary directed by Stephen Kijak giving an account of Judy Garland’s unhappy relationship with her third husband, Sid Luft. John Hamm narrates from Luft’s memoirs and there is some rare archive material on show. This is an interesting pairing with the recent release of the film starring Renee Zellweger as JUDY.
One of the films which has remained stuck in my head is LUCE. Directed by a new talent, Julius Onah, it is a psychological thriller about Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a child refugee who has escaped from an African country. He has been adopted by a white sympathetic couple (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), who are disturbed to find he might have subversive ideas. This is especially worrying as Luce is one of the top achievers at his school. Good performances all around, especially by Octavia Spencer as one of Luce’s teachers who becomes suspicious of his behaviour. It could do with a second viewing to determine exactly what happens at the end.
A different kind of tale is exposed in HONEY BOY. Shia LaBeouf plays his own alcoholic and abusive father to young Otis (Lukas Hedges as the grown-up and Noah Jupe as the young Otis). Otis makes money for his father by acting in films. Searing story with a fantastic performance by LaBeouf and equally good ones from Hedges and young Jupe.
Another young boy is at the centre of JOJO RABBIT. The satire is set in Germany at the end of the Second World War. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) becomes a member of the local Hitler Youth. There is a lot of comedy in his antics as he fails to fulfill most of the tasks given in the training. It becomes even harder to cope when he finds that his mother (Scarlett Johansson again) has hidden a Jewish girl in their house. Lots of people loved this film but it didn’t appeal to me – perhaps I just don’t find Nazis and Hitler amusing!
I, however, loved A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD. Not really known in the UK, Fred Rogers (played in the film by Tom Hanks) was a favourite of young TV viewers in the USA for more than 30 years. He presented a popular television show. Director Marielle Heller shows us something about Fred Rogers and also the magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys) sent to interview Fred.
The chemistry between Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones which was so nicely developed in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is once again on display in THE AERONAUTS. Felicity Jones as Amelia Wren joins James Glaisher (Redmayne) in his bid to fly higher than anyone else. It is 1862 in London when we start and the two are flying in an air balloon. It is a real adventure story with lots of hazards and holding one’s breath moments. Lovely photography and naturalistic performances from the leads. Interestingly there is no romance here! Well-directed by Tom Harper.
MADE IN BANGLEDESH looks almost like a documentary. In a series of short scenes, director Rubaiyat Hossain presents the gradual small revolution that takes place when a feminist leads a group of women to become a union in a garment factory in Dhaka.
VIVARIUM is a very strange film. A young couple desperately seeking somewhere to buy that they can afford, call in at an estate agent’s and are directed to a new housing development called Yonder. When it is
time to leave, they can’t and as the weeks pass, they find themselves trapped inside a maze of streets all leading back to where they started. Even stranger things happen when they find a baby boy dumped on their doorstep. Absolutely absorbing, director Lorcan Finnegan does a grand job in keeping the suspense up. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play the couple.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is most attractive to look at and is an interesting idea beautifully executed. The film introduces us to a portrait painter, Marianne, who is commissioned to paint a picture of the daughter of a wealthy woman in 1760. The picture is to go to the girl’s intended suitor. The only trouble is Heloise doesn’t want to be married and doesn’t want her portrait painted. Helise and Marianne gradually form a close, loving relationship. Celine Sciamma directs with finesse.
With cameos from Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgard and moving performances from the other actors, THE PAINTED BIRD is a Czech film made in black and white and directed by Vaclav Marhoul. It is long and at times tough to watch. Going from one brutal encounter to the next a young Jewish boy makes his way across central Europe alone and desperate to survive during the war.
The violent persecution of young male homosexuals in apartheid South Africa in the early 1980s is shown in the film MOFFIE by Oliver Hermanus. In ROCKS, Sarah Gavron shows us a young girl who has to devise imaginative means of keeping her family together when her mother leaves home. The father is not around and Rocks, as the young girl is named, has to strive to keep her young brother at home with her. It is well-directed and gives a good picture of young girls in London.
JUDY AND PUNCH is a film for the feminists amongst us. Turning the usual Punch and Judy upside down, we have Mia Wasikowska – showing she is more than just a beautiful looking actress – as Judy and Damon Herriman as Punch. This Punch is a wife-batterer and eventually Judy has had enough and begins to believe in her own power as an individual. Strong performances and a most interesting story make this film one of the highlights of the LFF.
Very different is a small-scale film, ORDINARY LOVE, which sees a couple trying to cope when the wife is diagnosed with breast cancer. Hard to take for those who have been affected by the horrible disease, the film is moving and acted with sensitivity by Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson.
Another hit at the Festival was KNIVES OUT. An amusing whodunnit with a cast to die for. When crime fiction writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is murdered, there is no shortage of suspects amongst his enlarged family. Director Rian Johnson conducts his large cast with skill and Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas and Don Johnson each get their moment to shine. The detective is played by Daniel Craig and he is helped by Harlan’s nurse who seems a reliable witness as she pukes when she lies!
Lots of films to choose from. Many others besides my choice above. Most of these with have full reviews in Close-Up Film.com, so watch out for them!