- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (9/10/2020)
(Part One of an overview of the 64th BFI London Film Festival)
The BFI deserves a huge amount of credit for curating the 64th London Film Festival. In the current climate. assembling a programme of 50-odd features and dozens of shorts represents a Herculean effort. But what makes LFF 20202 all the more remarkable is the fact that cinemas across the UK will be participating for the first time, while the many virtual premieres and free online events means that this is genuinely the people's film festival.
In past years, the Festivals & Seasons coverage on the BBC website and Empire Online has made no bones about its dislike of the current LFF programme categories. Bur, rather than break down the slate into its geographical components, as in previous years, we shall discuss titles within their allotted strands so that you can Create, Dare, Debate, Journey, Laugh and Love to your heart's content.
Given the lockdown restrictions that will be in place for much of the festivals 7-18 October duration, it's not perhaps surprising to discover that the biggest category in the 2020 programme is Journey, with 14 titles. The standout is undoubtedly Chloé Zhao's Nomadland, which arrives in London after becoming the first picture in screen history to win both the Golden Lion at Venice and the People's Choice Award at Toronto. Drawing on Jessica Bruder's tome, Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, this study of the grim realities of America's service economy centres on Fran (Frances McDormand), a widower who takes to living in a white van after the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada closes down. Among the wanderers the sixtysomething encounters are Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells, who are playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves. Photographed by Joshua James Richards, this seems set to become an emblematic snapshot of the Trump era and a new classic in the road movie genre.
Fresh from winning an Academy Award for her performance in Barry Jenkins's If Beale Street Could Talk (2019), Regina King became the first African-American woman director to have a film selected for the Golden Lion when One Night in Miami competed at Venice. Based on an acclaimed stage play by Kemp Powers, this timely drama re-imagines events that took place in the Hampton House motel on 25 February 1964 in the hours after the 22 year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. Sharing his success and analysing what this victory means for the Civil Rights and Black Power movements are activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and American footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in a meeting of minds that profoundly resonates with today's Black Lives Matter campaign.
The socialising quartet in Dane Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round are seeking a very different kind of freedom, as they experiment with alcohol levels in a bid to find an antidote to modern living. While helping fellow teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) celebrate his birthday, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Peter (Lars Ranthe) tease Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) for sticking to lemon and soda. On being reminded of the bibulous theories of Norwegian philosopher, Finn Skårderud, however, Martin agrees in the interests of science to see if a few tipples improves his relationships with his pupils and his dismissive wife, Trine (Maria Bonnevie).
Solace is also sought at the bottom of a glass in Bill and Turner Ross's Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a bittersweet docufiction set in The Roaring Twenties, a Las Vegas dive bar being tended for the last time before its closure by Marc Paradis and Shay Walker, which affords barflies Michael Martin, Lowell Landes, Peter Elwell, and Pam Harper with a safe haven to get a skinful and riff on life, the universe and everything in between. The refuge that teenager Esther (Tallulah Cassavetti) stumbles into couldn't be much more different in Anna Cazenave's Gold For Dogs. Estranged from her family, she gets a crush on a beach bum (Corentin Fila), while working in the South of France and decides to follow him to Paris. Needing somewhere to stay, however, she accepts the hospitality offered by the nuns of an inner-city convent.
Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry) also comes to make the best of a bad job when he is billed on Uist in the Outer Hebrides while his asylum application is assessed in Ben Sharrock's Limbo. Nursing a broken arm, he could feel sorry for himself, but he isn't allowed much time to wallow by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who run the centre's cultural-awareness classes, and Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan with a passion for Freddie Mercury, Friends and chickens. Hopes of a better life also drive repairman Mofe (Jude Akuwudike) and hairdresser Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams), as they seek to leave Lagos for Spain and Italy respectively in This Is My Desire, which marks the directorial debut of twins Arie and Chuko Esiri and suggests the growing strength of an indie wave away from Nigeria's Nollywood mainstream.
Acceptance is also the theme of first-timer Rezwan Shahriar Sumit's The Salt In Our Waters, which follows budding artist Rudro (Titas Zia) from Dhaka to the Bangladeshi Delta, as he seeks some peace and quiet to work on his sculptures. Initially, his pieces enchant the locals, including landlord's daughter, Tuni (Tasnova Tamanna). But, when the fishermen complain about the dwindling Ilish catch, Rudro is accused of idolatry and by the community Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu). The locale proves even more crucial in Filipino auteur Lav Diaz's Genus Pan, a monochrome treatise on the human condition that accompanies gold miners Baldo (Nanding Josef), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Andres (DMS Boongaling) on an allegorical jungle journey to their home island of Hugaw that is made all the more arduous by the tensions and revelations that turn the three friends against each other.
Moving into the documentary sphere, Gianfranco Rosi follows up Sacro Gra (2013) and Fire At Sea (2016), which respectively took the top prizes at Venice and Berlin, with Notturno, which criss-crosses the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon to examine the influence of dictators, ISIS and foreign intrusion upon the Middle East. Employing what Variety called an `ennobling camera', he challenges the conventions of the form to revisit what John Grierson called `the creative treatment of actuality'. Nearby Turkey provides the setting for Elizabeth Lo's Stray, a canine companion piece to Ceyda Torun's feline feature, Kedi (2016), bears the pawprint of Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut's Santiago saga, Los Reyes (2019), in showing how a trio of Istanbul street dogs - Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal the puppy - befriend three young Syrian refugees doing what they have to do to survive..
The notion of being an outcast is explored in Peter Murimi's I Am Samuel, an intimate account of being in a gay relationship in Kenya that took five years to make. When Samuel left Nairobi in search of greater opportunity, farming parents Redon and Rebecca hoped he would return with a wife to help with the harvest. Instead, he met Alex, with whom he risks both homophobic violence and a 14-year prison sentence under laws that are rooted in the code that was introduced by the British over a century ago. Prejudices in Sierra Leone are similarly challenged in Jerry Rothwell's The Reason I Jump, an innovative interpretation of Naoki Higashida's ground-breaking memoir about living with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Parents Mary and Roland strive to care for the non-speaking Jestina, whose condition is associated with witchcraft by some conservative elders, and Amrit in India, Joss in Britain and American best friends Ben and Emma all have personal and societal obstacles to overcome in order to negotiate the everyday.
Sure to feature when the awards season gets underway, Francis Lee's Ammonite pairs Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a fictionalised account of the encounter between 1840s fossil collector Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a prominent member of the Royal Geographical Society. who came to convalesce in Lyme Regis on Dorset's Jurassic Coast. Little is known about Anning, whose pioneering work with prehistoric specimens hasn't always been given its due. But Lee has imagined her and her socio-intellectual and physical milieu with the assistance of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, production designer Sarah Finlay and costumier, Michael O'Connor.
Dick Pope's views of the Lake District prove equally key to Harry Macqueen's Supernova, although much of the action is confined to the campervan ferrying concert pianist Sam (Colin Firth) and novelist Tusker (Stanley Tucci) on a last holiday before the latter succumbs to encroaching dementia. While the sixtysomething Tusker has reconciled himself to his condition, Sam finds it harder to cope with the prospect of losing his partner of 20 years twice. Things come to a head during a surprise party being thrown as Sam's family home by his sister, Lilly (Pippa Hayward).
The grieving process also informs Aleem Khan's debut, After Love, as Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlon) makes a shocking discovery a day after burying her husband, Nasser (Nasser Memarzia), in Dover. Armed with his phone, she heads to France to track down the stranger (Nathalie Richard) with whom her spouse had a secret family just 21 miles across the Channel. Another woman forced to start again similarly takes matters into her own hands in Phyllida Lloyd's Herself, which revisits the housing shortage theme of Gerard Barret's little-seen Limbo (2017) and Paddy Breathnach's Roddy Doyle-scripted, Rosie (2018).. Having walked out on abusive husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), Dublin cleaner Sandra Kelly (Clare Dunne) decides the only way to provide a suitable home for daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O'Hara) is to build her own on land donated by her boss, Peggy (Harriet Walter).
The ensemble vibe also ripples through Lovers Rock, which forms part of the Small Axe series of films about the Black British experience that Steve McQueen has directed for the BBC and Amazon Studios. LFF has also programmed Mangrove, while Education, Alex Wheattle and Red, White and Blue will follow before the end of the year. Set in Notting Hill in 1980, this is the only entirely fictional entry and centres on the house party encounters between birthday girl Cindy (Ellis George) and the intimidating Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) and Ealing sneakout Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and the solicitous Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Complementing this unconventional dance drama is Patric Chiha's documentary, If It Were Love, which chronicles the evolution of Crowd, choreographer Gisèle Vienne's paean to the 1990s rave scene.
First mentioned in the writings of the 16th-century Swiss polymath, Paracelsus, the eponymous water sprite is re-imagined as a historian at the Berlin City Museum in Christian Petzold's Undine. But the murderous fury Undine (Paula Beer) feels at being dumped by Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) soon dissipates when she falls for industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) after he takes her to see her named stencilled on an arch submerged in a lake near Wuppertal. Having not seen each other for 17 years, New York cabby Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) and wife Esther (Zainab Jah) have a lot of catching up to do in Ekwa Msangi's Farewell Amor, when she arrives from Angola with their daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). Her initial resentment eases when she pals up with classmate DJ (Marcus Scribner), while Esther finds a friend in next-door-neighbour, Nzingha (Joie Lee). But Walter has to get used to life without Linda (Nana Mensah), the nurse with whom he has been living for several years.
Home truths also have to be unpacked in Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare's Cicada, which the former has based on his own experiences. Flitting between 2013 gig jobs and one-night stands, bisexual New Yorker Ben (Fifer) is repressing the childhood abuse that prevents him from committing to a relationship. But things change when he meets Sam (Sheldon B. Brown), who is similarly struggling to get over being shot in the street a few years earlier. Another two lives take a turn for the better in Days, Malaysian auteur Tsai Ming-liang's first feature since Stray Dogs (2013), which examines the fallout when the wealthy, middle-aged Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) seeks relief from debilitating pain and is so grateful to much-younger masseur Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) that he gives him a musical box that plays the theme from Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952).
A famous name dominates the Cult triptych. But the Cronenberg responsible for Possessor is not Canadian body horror maestro David, but his son Brandon, who follows up his 2012 debut, Antiviral, with a grisly identity tussle that chronicles the secret life of wife and mother, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough). However, when handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sends Tasya on another mission to possess the mind of a dupe in an undetectable case of murder/suicide, Tasya finds Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) a tough nut to crack. He readily bumps off tech tycoon John Parse (Sean Bean). But, as he is dating his daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), he's more than a little reluctant to dispense with himself.
The mood is markedly less frenetic, but just as unsettling in editor-turned-director Jennifer Sheridan's feature bow, Rose: A Love Story. Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe) appear to have a simple, but homely existence in woodland on the outskirts of a quiet town. But Sam is struggling to contain an illness that compels Rose to crave blood and her hunger is rising when the couple receive an unexpected visitor in the form of Amber (Olive Gray).
There's another surprise for those who go down to the woods in Australian Natalie Erika James's debut, Relic. Summoned from Melbourne by the police when her mother goes missing for a couple of days, Kay (Emily Mortimer) arrives in the old dark family home with her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote). At first, there's no sign of the candle-carving Edna (Robyn Nevin). But, when she does show up, Edna's dementia starts having an unusual effect on the house, which is harbouring a secret that can no longer remain hidden.
The fact that Covid is continuing to wreak havoc around the globe is clearly no laughing matter. But we could all do with cheering up and LFF 2020 has rather missed a trick in only programming three titles in the Laugh section. Perhaps the shortfall merely reflects the old adage that life is easy, comedy is hard.
It seems to come easier than most to Miranda July, however, who is on typically quirky form with Kajillionaire, a tale of conniving and parenting that sees twentysomething Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) discover that the lifestyle she has led with small-time Los Angeles hustlers Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) is far from normal. However, it takes an encounter on a return flight from New York with Puerto Rican optician's assistant Melanie Whitacre (Gina Rodriguez) and her scheme to scam vulnerable old folks for her to realise how eccentric they are, as they show more interest in the newly recruited Ocean's 11 fan than they do in her.
Surrealism and satire also blur into each other in Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert's Never Gonna Snow Again, which, coincidentally, also contains massage scenes. The ministering angel is Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), who hails from Pripyat in the Ukraine, but is keen to start a new life in a neverland Poland. Among those in the affluent gated community seeking solace from his fingertips are bibulous housewife Maria (Maja Ostaszewska), Wika (Weronika Rosati) and her cancer-suffering husband (Lukasz Simlat), the neurotic bulldog-owning Valery (Katarzyna Figura), and Ewa (Agata Kulesza), a eco-conscious, drug-dependent widow, who is intrigued by the fact that Zhenia was celebrating his seventh birthday when the Chernobyl disaster took place.
Concluding this triptych is Honeymood, Talya Lavie's long-awaited follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Zero Motivation (2014). Recalling any number of late night in the big city sagas, the action starts with newlyweds Noam (Ran Danker) and Eleanor (Avigail Harari) retiring to their expensive hotel suite. But, when Noam refuses to explain why his ex would give him a ring as a wedding present, Eleanor stalks into the nearest taxi. What follows is a zany jaunt around Jerusalem, with the pair being followed by Noam's anxious parents, as Eleanor seeks some answers.
One of the great strengths of the London Film Festival is its commitment to introducing younger viewers to non-mainstream and foreign-language films. It has a proud record of programming northern Europe teenpix, which tackle everyday issues with much more insight and authenticity than their Hollywood counterparts. So, it's disappointing, to say the least, that the 2020 Family slot is occupied by just two films and it's also a shame that they both happen to be animations.
Directed for Pixar by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Soul sees middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) get to fulfil a lifetime's ambition by playing jazz at the Half Note Club. However, before he can further impress respected musician, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe has an accident that parts him from his soul. As his body heads towards the Great Beyond, he fetches up in the Great Before, where trainee soul 22 (Tina Fey), helps him solve his dilemma before rapscallion neighbour Paul (Daveed Diggs) steals his dream.
There's a very different feel to Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart's Wolfwalkers, which completes the Irish trilogy that Moore began with the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Set in the early 1650s, the tale takes place in the walled city of Kilkenny and centres on Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), who have been sent from England by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) to tame the wild wolves of Ireland. However, Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a mediating wolfwaker who needs her human friend's help when Cromwell captures her mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy).