LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

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Mary Shelley (2017)

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.

Mary Shelley film posterCREDITS
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.

Sunset Song (2015)

This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel — which my mother will be disappointed to hear I haven’t yet read, but I’m pleased to register does feature a key character with my own name — has been many years in the making, but Terence Davies has previous form with fine period literary adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and the underrated The Neon Bible all fall into this category, and are all excellent). What he’s done here fits into that continuum, and there’s a really handsome visual quality to the staging, all rolling vistas and sweeping location shots — which I trust are of Aberdeenshire, although I know some of the filming took place in New Zealand, and this latter may be why the accents don’t always fully convince. In the lead role of Chris Guthrie, the farmer’s daughter who finds herself rather put upon by circumstance — not to mention by her gruff father (Peter Mullan, of course) — Agyness Deyn (hitherto a fashion model, I am given to understand) does excellent work. However, clearly director Terence Davies has worked hard with his actors to find a register which is not quite naturalistic, but which strikes a balance between the immediacy of the characters’ emotions (the plot, set on the cusp of World War I, is rich with melodramatic detail) and creating a stylised distance for viewers that self-consciously reminds us that this is both an adaptation of a beloved literary work and one which is set a hundred years in the past, in a world which is largely lost. Davies has always been apt to find this balance, particularly by interpolating traditional songs (he does it here, when the characters sing after a wedding), but elsewhere there’s an almost theatricality to the staging. As to the world the film depicts, it’s hardly an idyll of course, but one of the themes is the way that modernisation has largely supplanted (if not destroyed) traditional methods of working and living, and shaken up familial relationships, which is only cemented by the outbreak of war. I suspect this is a film that needs a second viewing to appreciate fully, but it’s certainly rich in detail.

Sunset Song film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015.

Amour Fou (2014)

This Austrian film, set in the early-19th century, is a curious one. It unfolds in a very deliberately paced way, with a series of largely unmoving tableaux compositions with centred groupings of actors, brightly lit in brightly coloured, meticulously tidy rooms. The line delivery resists any overt melodrama while the actors tend to remain still in the centre of the frame, so outwardly this all suggests the formal rigour of, say, a Straub/Huillet film. One might easily assume that nothing happens — as a story about a real life love affair with a tragic denouement, there’s very little of the kind of hand-wringing content you might expect. (I’d go so far as to say this represents some canny anti-Valentine’s Day programming, coming out so soon before that particular festival.) But between the married Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and the doomy romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), the film conveys plenty of emotion, through its focus on the minutiae of the exchanges between them. Meanwhile there are vast changes taking place in the very social fabric of everyday existence, as the effects of the French Revolution filter through, and Henriette’s husband is tasked with levying taxes on the now newly-emancipated populace of the Austrian empire (much to the chagrin of the aristocracy, one of whom is seen bewailing this invidious novelty). What particularly sets the film apart, though, is its wry take on the figure of Kleist, a self-involved fantasist so wrapped up in his own death-fixated romantic ideals that he seems uncomprehending that the women he meets should not want to join him in death’s loving embrace. He’s a figure more of laughable pretension, and it’s Henriette who seems the more clear-minded despite her terminal diagnosis. As a period costume drama, it certainly bucks the usual dramatic signifiers, but emerges no less clear-sighted for all that.

Amour Fou film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 February 2015.