The BFI London Film Festival (LFF) celebrates its 60th year with films exploring imperialism and nationhood
It is said that the largest cities of the most globalised nations have more in common with each other, even across continents, than they do with the provinces that surround them. This certainly seems to be the case for their film festivals, for arriving after the famous festivals of Berlin, Sundance, Venice and Toronto comes London’s BFI, which opened yesterday and runs until 16 October.
The LFF’s role then is not so much to be an agenda-setter for the cutting edge of film culture, but more of a summary of the films that hope to achieve critical acclaim and, if a distributor picks it up, audience success. This year, the festival is followed by Black Star, a celebration of black filmmaking, which offers a welcome corrective to the #oscarssowhite controversy at the beginning of 2016.
Big-name auteurs and well-funded star vehicles dominate the gala nights and films in official competition at the festival. Indian-American director Mira Nair, most famous for Monsoon Wedding, provides Queen of Katwe, an account of the girlhood and extraordinary success of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi. The festival also marks a return for Basic Instinct-controversialist Paul Verhoeven with the Isabelle Huppert-starred Elle, and the intriguing prospect of Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning meeting in a 148-minute vision of 19th-century American religious fundamentalism, Brimstone.
The festival is bulked out by many often fairly generic contemporary realist relationship dramas, but a few of the films that promise to go beyond such staple festival fare include Nocturama, a timely (although filmed pre-Bataclan) consideration of terrorism in Paris, and, in a different key, Frantz, a new direction for director François Ozon into the stately black-and-white mode of the 1920s as he continues to probe the peculiarities of love and romance after films such as Swimming Pool, Potiche and The New Girlfriend.
Neruda, a lyrical contemplation of the Chilean poet by his countryman Pablo Larraín, is bound to offer a real treat. Meanwhile, Nocturnal Animals sees erstwhile fashion designer Tom Ford return to directing after 2009’s A Single Man, placing Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal in an apparently brooding meditation on the line between fiction and reality. Divines, whose press screening occurred before the festival opening, features two schoolgirls making their way through the Parisian banlieues. The themes of race and youth exclusion recall 1995’s La Haine, but Divines’ over-earnest attempt to chuck in every social issue it could think of is countered by the tour-de-force break-out performance of the film’s star, Oulaya Amamra – sister of the debut director Houda Benyamina and a compelling presence throughout.
What distinguishes the London Film Festival is its brief to present British cinema to the world. This year the festival celebrates its 60th anniversary, its founding year of 1957 coincidentally also the year that the UK was humiliated in Suez and denied entry by France to the European Economic Community. The continued preoccupations of British cinema confirm the long endurance of its resulting post-imperial identity crisis. In a comic vein, Their Finest delves into British mores in the story of a woman drafted by the Ministry of Information to provide a ‘woman’s touch’ to wartime propaganda efforts.
The gala opening of the festival was provided by Amma Asante’s period piece, A United Kingdom. Telling the true tale of the marriage between the King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and white London lass Ruth Williams, played by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, the film is an example of what has come to be known as the heritage drama’s loving recreation of the imperial era. Although its conventional tale of romance across conflict splits its characters into goodies and baddies, this simplicity becomes a vehicle to present the complexities of decolonisation in a world split between rival claims to national liberation, the beginnings of the Cold War and the designs of international capitalism on Africa’s resources. This is in addition to the deviousness of the dying British Empire in tacit alliance with a South Africa bent on enforcing an ideology of total racial separation.
Rather differently to the postcard images with which heritage presents Britishness to the world, Ben Wheatley – who has already twice appeared at the festival with the fantastic serial killer comedy, Sightseers and then again with the somewhat chaotic JG Ballard adaptation of High Rise – brings the curtain down on this year’s festival with the closing gala performance of Free Fire, an ultra-violent comic heist movie apparently in the mold of Tarantino and the westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Another notable British entrant comes from Andrea Arnold in a departure from her previous depictions of life on British estates, taking on that most American of genres, the road movie, with American Honey.
While Britishness gives the festival its distinctiveness, it is also an unspoken testing-ground for Hollywood’s likely Oscar contenders. The Birth of a Nation, a take on slave revolt in 1831 Virginia, would have received a more prominent placing were its director and star, Nate Parker, not involved in an ongoing controversy regarding an off-screen allegation of rape. Damian Chazelle follows Whiplash with his much-anticipated fable to the classic musical La La Land, while Oliver Stone returns with an account of the ‘soldier, fugitive, patriot, spy, hacker, traitor, hero’, Snowden. And should all this exploration of nationhood leave one with a desire to get away from it all, Arrival gives us a sci-fi paean to intergalactic tolerance through attempts at understanding extra-terrestrials.
Aside from these big releases, The Platform will be back to report on more.
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