The 61st BFI London Film Festival offers sinister realities and images of beautiful desolation for a range of viewing tastes
It’s that most magical time of the year again. For nearly two weeks the cinemas of Central London will be filled from morning to night with a selection of the coming year’s most promising films from around the world. Full programme and ticket details can be found here, but we at The Platform would, of course, like to navigate your attention beyond the European and US filmmaking that makes up the bulk of the gala performances.
Book in for Good Manners, a mystery set in São Paulo where realism meets the macabre, or Zama, Lucrecia Martel’s destruction of the colonial myth of the Americas. See Andrey Zvyagintsev’s return with Loveless, after he won the London Film Festival award in 2014 with Leviathan – and landed himself in hot water on his return to Putin’s Russia.
Our regular readers will also be interested to hear of the Palestinian entrant to the official competition, Wajib, and the documentary, The Venerable W., about Buddhist monks in Myanmar whose anti-Muslim preaching has been at the centre of violent attacks upon the Rohingya, particularly over the past month. If your nerves can take it, then check in to the “thrillingly raw and intense” South African drama, Five Fingers for Marseilles, or sit down for the only Iraqi film in the programme, The Journey – a thriller set in the final moments before a female suicide bomber is due to unload her deadly charge.
BFI makes space for short films in this festival, as well as an ‘Experimenta’ section and the re-issue of old classics. Predominantly though, the LFF aims to represent the more accessible end of the art of film, so you can expect to see tragedy and joy, hope and despair, and gore and grit abound. But the theme seems to run across this year’s festival is perseverance, in forms as diverse as love, sports, personal justice and the struggle for equality.
The festival opens with a gala performance of Breathe, the directorial debut of Britain’s Andy Serkis, better known to audiences as the lissom form behind the CGI of Gollum and King Kong. It stars hot couple Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy in the true story of a polio sufferer who defied his bleak medical prognoses to invent a special kind of wheelchair and embark upon a historic mission to advance the cause of disability rights. With a score by Nitin Sawhney, this promises to be a lavish affair, and while we wait and see whether it manages to go beyond clichés, the theme alone surely testifies to the radical politics of its director in an age when the disabled in the UK face a brutal onslaught from government austerity policy.
It is the closing gala that promises the greatest fun, as the word from its showing at Venice is that director Martin McDonagh has beaten his previous best, In Bruges, with the Hollywood-produced Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here, Frances McDormand stars as a mother whose daughter’s murder pushes her to embark on a mission to shake up the lazy disengagement of the sleepy provincial police department, embodied in Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Developing the director’s flair for the impact of comic violence and inventive employment of swear words, this will not be one to miss.
Meanwhile Emma Stone and Steve Carell star as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, in which a tennis match between the pair in 1973 becomes a stage to set the sexual revolution against the competitive politics of a machismo that stubbornly refuses to take its place as a relic of the historical past. In a different key, Call Me by your Name offers a sensually rich exposition of desire and transgression from Luca Guadagnino. Once again, the Italian director promises to luxuriate in the stimulating pleasures of landscape, music, food and touch. In our post-60s, post-post-racial times, one may wonder whether progress is ever more than a momentary advance before a cyclical return to the horrors of past injustice. Mudbound provides an opportunity to reflect on this as it documents a multi-racial friendship between two World War Two veterans in the Deep South still in the clutches of Jim Crow apartheid.
Two sneak previews that we were able to get before the opening of the festival put such endurance in the context of personal feeling. Lean on Pete offers a slow, heart-breaking vision of a 15-year-old boy as he embarks upon a perilous journey across to Wyoming with only a horse for company. Never has the loneliness of desolation looked so beautiful. Alternatively, Racer and the Jailbird puts hunky Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts into the arms of Adèle Exarchopoulos in a thrilling tale of criminal adventure and the long arduousness of imperilled love.
Among the headliners that we can’t wait to see are Guillermo del Toro’s gothic homage to the 1950s B movie The Shape of Water, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which provided probably the most affectingly compelling 15-second trailer I have possibly ever seen. Two satires, Sally Potter’s takedown of Britain’s political elite The Party, and Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s comic vision of a near future that hosts an ingenious experiment to solve climate change, will hopefully provide just another couple of reasons why we think this might shape up to be a memorable London festival.
Author update: Picturehouse are threatening to sack workers taking part in strike action to demand a London living wage. As such, campaigners are calling for a boycott of Picturehouse screenings at this year’s festival.
Image from The Journey / Image.net
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