56th London Film Festival

Posted on: 23 October 2012 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green picks his favourites from the BFI's annual film bonanza, which has thrilled, amused and amazed.

Marion CotillardSome 225 features and 111 shorts from 68 different countries: from established film producers such as the UK, US, France, Italy, Australia, Japan and Russia to works from developing creative industries in Brazil, Israel, Serbia, Saudi, Arabia, India and Iran were unspooled over the course of the 56th BFI London Film Festival.

The festival kicked off on October 10 with the European premiere of Tim Burton's 3D animation movie Frankenweenie, described as being "gruesome cute, death obsessed, and seen as usual from the perspective of an outsider in a conformist world", and ended last weekend (October 21) with Mike Newell's visually stunning version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, with Ralph Fiennes playing the convict Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham.

New festival Director Clare Stewart has divided the festival programme into a series of themes - Cult, Dare, Debate, Laugh, Journey, Love, Sonic and Thrill. 

One of the most accomplished film directing debuts of 2012 is to be found in Sally El Hosaini's gritty realistic British movie, My Brother the Devil.

Mo (Fady Elsayed) is a 14 year-old student living with his Egyptian family on a soulless Hackney housing estate and in awe of his self-assured older brother, Rashid (James Floyd). Rashid is involved with a local gang and dabbles in drug dealing, though he wants a better future for Mo, and encourages his brother's college aspirations. However, Mo is seduced by the lure of gang life just as Rashid decides to turn his back on it. When Mo discovers a secret Rashid is keeping the worlds of both boys will be turned upside down. 

El Hosaini has a well-tuned ear for street talk and her film is strikingly shot in scope and colour. but it is the impressive performances by the two leads Elsayed and Floyd, supported by a fine young cast, that really engage our emotions and make the film such a thought provoking experience. Incidentally El Hosaini is shortlisted for the best director/screenwriter and Elsayed for best actor in the Best British newcomer awards.

A romcom with wit and insight is one way you could describe Lee Toland Krieger's, Celeste and Jesse Forever. Celeste (the luminous Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have a perfect marriage - except they're divorcing. This, though, does not stop them from seeing each other at every available opportunity. Celeste, an ambitious trend-spotter in a prestigious marketing firm, decides she wants more from life than Jesse, who gets by on looks and charm alone. The film manages to breathe a freshness and spontaneity into a somewhat overworked genre.

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Another British film of considerable merit is Scott Graham's debut feature, Shell. The protagonist of the title is a 17 year-old girl living and working in her father's remote petrol station in the Scottish Highlands, where her life revolves around dealing with the occasional passing holidaymaker and lorry driver, as well as a few local regulars. Her mother deserted years ago and she only has her father to whom she is devoted for company. Shelly's affection for her dad and the lonely environs create confused emotions that both have difficulty coming to terms with. This study of physical and emotional isolation has a strong sense of atmosphere - the howling wind and the bitter cold are so intense they are almost palpable. Newcomer Chloe Pirrie gives a poignant performance as Shell and both she and director/screenwriter Scott Graham are nominated in the first feature awards category.

One of the biggest surprises is Jeremy Teicher's exquisite, beautifully photographed, Tall as the Baobab Tree. Coumba and her little sister, Debo live with their father, a devout Muslim, mother and elder brother in a remote African village, where meals are prepared over open fires and water is drawn from wells. The family rely on their cows and goats for their livelihood, but the two girls, who are the first in their family to go to school and are hoping for a better future. 

When an accident occurs and the brother falls and breaks his leg, the unaffordable medical bill threatens the family's survival. So the father decides to sell his 11 year-old daughter Debo into an arranged marriage. However, Coumba comes up with an idea to save her sister from a disastrous fate. This is a little gem of a film which has the authenticity of a dramatised documentary.

Miscarriages of justice have formed the basis of many memorable films such as Let ‘em Have It and Thin Blue Line. The latest addition Amy Berg's impressive documentary West of Memphis is well up there with the best. In 1994 in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, three teenagers were accused of carrying out satanic rituals and subsequently found guilty of the brutal murders of three eight year-old boys. Each was sentenced to 18 years in prison despite the fact that their confessions were inconsistent and the evidence given by the prosecution witnesses false. Berg was in the process of shooting this film when the court finally yielded to increasing public and legal pressure and freed the Memphis Three on condition the case would now be closed and no monetary compensation awarded. Admittedly at two and a half hours the film is over-long but the twists and turns of the legal process are fascinating to follow and it is interesting to note that one of the wrongfully accused, Damien Eccles, along with Lorri Davis, who married Eccles in prison and tirelessly campaigned for his release, helped produce the movie.

A landmark film of the 1980s was Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining. Now director Rodney Ascher in his intriguing new work Room 237 has gathered together theories, speculations, rumours and ideas that have built up around the film. The result is less a documentary about the film itself than an examination of what it stands for. Ascher here explores the meanings some people believe to be hidden within the film - such as veiled references to Hitler and the Holocaust - illuminated by clips, animation and dramatic re-enactments. The result is a beguiling homage to Kubrick's unsettling movie.

Two souls seeking redemption in a tough world provides the theme of Jacques Audiard's taut romantic drama Rust and Bone. Stephanie (sensitively played by Marian Cotillard in her most challenging role to date) trains killer whales in a marine theme park. Late one night she meets Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a bouncer at a nightclub. He is on the brink of returning to street fighting but he has his young son to think about. Their attraction is immediate. But when they meet again, a tragic accident has transformed Stephanie's life. Her anger draws her inexorably in to Alain's violent world and in each other they find hope of healing their wounds. This later work from Audiard sees him return to a morally ambiguous universe where the law has little meaning and the line between right and wrong is never clear. Unfolding on the fringes of a shadowy underworld, the movie is as visceral as his award-winning A Prophet, but shot through with great tenderness.

The best film I have seen at the festival so far, however, is Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt. Lucas us a well loved kindergarten teacher, finally putting his life back into shape after a difficult divorce and the loss of his previous job. His world is suddenly shattered, though, when the young daughter of his closest friend, who happens to be in his class, accuses him of a sexual misdemeanour. Very quickly the peaceful community turns against him, and his beloved dog is killed. The collective hysteria and ferocity which is whipped up threaten to destroy him. This is an extremely well-crafted and gripping study of the effects of false indictment on one individual and its devastating emotional consequences which is made truly memorable by a deeply affecting performance by Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas. He was justifiably awarded the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In short a truly electrifying piece of work. 

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