The 54th BFI London Film Festival

Posted on: 14 October 2010 by Editor at Large

Almost 200 films from the UK, France, Spain, the USA, Thailand, India, Italy, Israel, Rwanda, Mexico, Japan, Russia, the Czech Republic and South Korea will be screened at the 54th BFI London Film Festival which kicked off this week. Lawrence Green reports.

The opening film at this 16-day celluloid jamboree was Mark Romanek’s tale of love and loss Never Let Me Go, based on Kasuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel and featuring an impressive line-up of British thespians. The closing movie is Danny Boyle’s latest 127 Hours, the terrifying true story of an American mountain climber who embarked on a solo expedition in Utah, only to become trapped down a ravine.

Hope and despair, life and death, and loneliness and friendship are the elements to be found in Mike Leigh’s melancholic but funny comedy Another Year. We first encounter happily married Gerri, a medical counsellor, and Tom, a geologist, tending their allotment. They entertain Gerri’s lonely work colleague, Mary, who gets drunk and bemoans her disastrous love life. Gerri and Tom enjoy a happy relationship with their 30-year-old son Joe. Gerri and Tom later receive word from Joe that he has a new girlfriend, Kate. His parents warm her immediately. But Mary has taken a fancy to Joe and is jealous of his newfound partner. This is another acutely observed study of people and their problems that has become a Mike Leigh trademark. The dialogue has a spontaneous, naturalistic feel and the characters are totally engaging, thanks to fine performance from Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri respectively and Lesley Manville as Mary.

Frederick Wiseman is arguably the cinema’s greatest living documentary film maker and his latest work Boxing Gym is up there amongst his best. This ‘fly on the wall’ look at Lord’s Gym, founded 16 years ago in Austin, Texas by former professional boxer Richard Lord, could be seen as a microcosm of modern American society, attracting a wide variety of people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and social classes from children, doctors, lawyers and judges to business men and women, immigrants, professional boxers and people who want to become professional boxers, all of whom come together as one family at the gym. Indeed Wiseman’s observational non-judgmental approach pays dividends as we become involved in the lives of these disparate individuals who help keep the afloat in difficult times. Even if you are not a boxing fan I guarantee you will find this movie both fascinating and insightful.

A desperate, lonely man looking for a father he never knew is the subject of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s gritty, slow-burning Biutiful, the odd title of which is named after a child’s spelling mistake. Uxbal is a crook with a conscience, operating in Barcelona’s underground economy, a world of Senegalese drug dealers, Chinese sweatshop workers and illegal immigrants. More importantly Uxbal is a family man, taking a tough but tender approach to his two children but a harder one with his alcoholic, bipolar and promiscuous ex-wife. When he is told he has prostate cancer and only a few months to live, Uxbal rushes to set hus complicated affairs in order. Inarritu brings a rough, raw visual style to his linear narrative and the film is enhanced by an intense central performance by Javier Bardem, for which he deservedly won the Best Actor Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Political drama meets hard-boiled thriller in Ken Loach’s gripping Route Irish. The title refers to a road in Iraq that runs from the Green Zone to the airport which is considered the most dangerous in the world. The film begins in 2007 as Fergus (Mark Womack) crosses the Mersey in a ferry to attend the funeral of his lifelong friend, Frankie, whom he had persuaded to join his security team in Baghdad for £10,000 a month tax free. Together they risked their lives in a city steeped in violence, terror and greed and awash with billions of US dollars. But Frankie was killed in an attack on his vehicle on the notorious Route Irish and Fergus is determined to uncover the truth behind his death. Loach paints a vivid picture of men scarred by bitter conflict, while the story of stolen mobile phones, corporate cover-ups and renegade revenge packs a considerable punch.

A portrait of a woman as complex as it is moving is provided by South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry. His heroine, Yang MIja, is a refined, elegantly dressed 66-year-old grandmother who lives alone with her moody, adolescent grandson and earns a living by taking care of a half-paralysed old man. She enrols in a poetry class as her cherished ambition is to write memorable verse. But her somewhat idyllic life is suddenly shattered when tests reveal she has Alzheimer’s and then she learns that the grandson she has raised is implicated in the rape and suicide of a local girl. This is a quiet but memorable movie that takes a while to make its point but then settles into its own hurried rhythm is which we fully get to know the protagonist, splendidly played by veteran actress Yun Junghee.

Fancy a road trip through Africa with a group of youngsters who all share a passion for football and are determined to get to the 2010 World Cup against all obstacles including wild animals, gun-wielding thugs and disease? Then head straight for Debs Gardner-Paterson’s Africa United. This has been described as The Wizard of Oz meets Into the Wild with its elements of road movie, extreme environments and childlike wonder and despite some superfluous animated sequences which seem at odds with the realism of the story, this is a heartwarming and engaging film, part of the proceeds of which from its LFF screening will go to Comic Relief.

A father’s betrayal of his son amidst the encroaching chaos of Chad’s seemingly endless civil war provides the compelling theme of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s tender but unsentimental A Screaming Man. The story focuses on Adam, a 60something former swimming champion who works as a pool attendant at a plush hotel. When it is taken over by new Chinese owners, the job is given to his son and he is reassigned to serve as hotel gatekeeper. For Adam the pool is his life and he feels socially humiliated, resulting in a fateful decision to send his son instead of cash as a contribution to the war effort. Haroun himself survived the war in Chad but was severely wounded and had to leave the country in a wheelbarrow to reach neighbouring Cameroon. However this is not a film about war but about those affected by it, people who feel they no longer have a grip on their own lives and see the world around them falling to pieces. Beautifully shot and with striking central performances by Youssouf Djaoro as the hapless protagonist, his face and eyes along conveying both guilt and grief.

But for me the best film at the festival so far is Xavier Beauvois’s gripping Of Gods and Men, winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It is set in a Cistercian monastery perched in the mountains of North Africa in the 1990s, where eight French monks live in harmony with the local Muslim population. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps through the region. The army offers protection but the monks refuse and are faced with the dilemma of whether to stay of leave.

Based on a true incident, the film refuses to take the traditional thriller route. Beauvois builds slowly to the inevitable tragedy, immersing us in the bucolic life of the monastery led by Christian (excellently palyed by Lambert Wilson), a scholar who can quote both the Bible and the Koran and whose dogged determination to stay put is part of what drives them to their doom. What this intelligent and memorable film does so well is to balance the theological and political dimensions of the drama so that we really care for the characters and fear for their fate.

For more on the London Film Festival see the BFI's LFF website.

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