My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
Although set amongst British characters, and with a very strong sense of the operation of class in particular, this film was made by a Dutch director. However, it feels very much anchored by the performance of Vicky Knight, the woman at the centre of the story.
A film about trauma — about Jade (Vicky Knight), a woman who has been left scarred by an acid attack — which has the benefit of having as its lead actor someone who has herself survived serious burns. Knight is fantastic in the role, and is really pushed into some dark places, and the film itself is all very solid, even as it keeps leading her (and us) down these painful paths, fuelled equally by desperation and depression over her fate. Into the mix is wrapped a story about class and race in modern England (the film is set in East London), about the underpaid and dispiriting jobs available to those with few means, and about the exploitation that takes place of those who are in a desperate place. The sequence set in Morocco feels like a stretch, and while it opens the film out from its grim council estate focus of the early parts of the film, in the end it feels just as claustrophobic, because we remain inside the lead character’s point-of-view for so much of the film.
Director Sacha Polak; Writers Susie Farrell and Polak; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Vicky Knight; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Castle Cinema, London, Friday 14 June 2019.
Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).
Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.
As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.
So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel); Cinematographer Danny Cohen; Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016.
The end of the year is always the time to catch up with movies which, for whatever reason, one neglected on first release. I had thought I wouldn’t really enjoy The Lobster and so I spent much of the film trying my best to resist it, though there are elements which work in its favour in that respect: the deliberately stilted line readings (especially Rachel Weisz’s voiceover narration), the bleakly deadpan acting, the black comedy of a world in which people must couple off again within 45 days after breaking up or be turned into an animal of their choosing. However, once you get into the film’s rhythm there are some genuine laughs, not least at the appalling banality of some of the conversation (such as Ben Whishaw’s with his ‘family’ near the end), or the ridiculous conceit of matching people up by superficial physical characteristics (to the extent that most of the characters are identified only by these qualities). Colin Farrell, in downplaying his usual hyperactive shtick, makes for a compellingly strange anti-presence at the heart of the film, while around him are some of the leading character actors of European cinema — for this is, by its many co-producing credits, a very European film. In thinking about its satirical take on coupledom and romance, it has grown in my opinion since I saw it, and it may yet continue to do so. Whatever else, it certainly marks a distinctive comic vision.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos Γιώργος Λάνθιμος; Writers Efthimis Filippou Ευθύμης Φιλίππου and Lanthimos; Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis Ευθύμης Φιλίππου; Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ariane Labed, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 30 December 2015.
This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.
Director John Crowley; Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín); Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015.
As readers of the small print on my reviews may have noticed, I go to see films at the Cineworld in Wood Green a lot (it’s one of the closest cinemas to where I live), which is the last place I expected to see featured in a film, but that shows how much I know. But while Dreams of a Life might be memorable to me for that small fact — the woman whose life it presents met her end in a flat in that same building — it is instead a fantastic film with an emotional effect I can only pinpoint as Uncanny (or Unheimliche if you will). Of course, director Carol Morley has form with that: her most recent film, the eerie The Falling, was one of my favourites at last year’s London Film Festival.
Outwardly there’s not much to say about Dreams, for it’s ostensibly a documentary about a woman called Joyce who was discovered dead in her Wood Green flat in 2006, having lain undisturbed for over two years. But grisly details of her end aside, the film is more interested in trying to find out about Joyce’s life, largely filtered through the recollections of her friends and lovers. As part of this, and perhaps to make clear that this is a film interpreting who Joyce may have been, rather than merely presenting the strange facts of her case file, the film is built around dramatic reconstructions of her with actor Zawe Ashton portraying her onscreen. For it turns out that Joyce was no maladjusted outsider for whom such an end seemed predestined, but instead — it seems — a beautiful, intelligent and apparently happy person. There are darker hints that domestic violence and abuse have contributed, so in a way it’s as much a film about what people keep hidden and how that can be undetected by even those closest to them.
However, perhaps most of all, it’s a film filled with the hopefulness of human contact, and the sadness of losing touch, which is perhaps the real reason for my calling it uncanny, for there’s something strangely familiar that I imagine to it that all of us can relate to. Over its running time, the film casts a real spell, one that is only broken by the end credits, as we hear Joyce singing, her voice dreadfully out of key, almost painfully reminding us that this is still a real person who has died, no mere dream.
Director/Writer Carol Morley; Cinematographers Mary Farbrother and Lynda Hall; Starring Zawe Ashton; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2015.
It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.
The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)
Frank Sidebottom was a musical alter ego of the late Chris Sievey, who gained some localised renown in England from the 1980s onwards with his massive papier-mâché head and cheerfully nasal song delivery. However, this film, which is co-written by Jon Ronson and based on accounts of his time in Sidebottom’s band, is not about Frank Sidebottom. It just takes the idea and image of that character and grafts it on to a far more thoroughgoing American story, one that trades on the legacy of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart (the legend of him imprisoning his band to record the seminal Trout Mask Replica album), Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston (whose mental health issues have been well documented) and perhaps a bit of Jandek (with his laconic public appearances). One needn’t necessarily know the music or stories of any of these artists, but Frank has its own catchy tunes, in amongst the rather more abstract noise, of the in-film (and unpronounceable) band Soronwfbs, led by the eponymous Frank (Michael Fassbender). Ronson’s own alter ego is the lead character Jon (Domhnall Gleason), an entirely annoying, self-interested twerp whose youthful naïveté also allows him to take on the challenge of joining Frank’s band, and whose self-absorption never seems to waver over much of the film’s running time. And yet, Fassbender’s largely masked performance has enough pathos that even when the film has transitioned from being an awkward comedy of Jon’s English manners to something altogether darker and more mysterious as the band slowly come together only to quickly fall apart, the audience is still on board.
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan; Cinematographer James Mather; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 11 May 2014.