BFI London Film Festival Week 5: The End Of The Festival
In this final report, the Film Inquiry team sums up their last film-watching experiences of the BFI London Film Festival.
Well, that’s it for another year, as the curtain has closed on this year’s London Film Festival. With over 240 films (both features and shorts) playing, there were plenty of movies we missed – but luckily, we managed to catch some gems in the last few days. Here’s our final dispatch.
Downsizing (Alexander Payne)
Ryan Morris: Downsizing is the classic example of a film that’s far from perfect but so enjoyable that you’ll be willing to look past its flaws. Yes, at 135 minutes the film is overlong and could do with a tighter edit. Yes, the film’s political message is a little muddled and is perhaps too broad a statement to really have an impact. Maybe Hong Chau’s character is offensively stereotyped and maybe we shouldn’t be laughing at the humour the film gives her. But maybe, at the end of the day, this is just a fun, funny, deeply watchable film that just doesn’t quite succeed in the bigger picture.
Downsizing may also be criminalised for its woeful underuse of Kristen Wiig (though it does get one terrific visual gag from her), but the rest of the cast are clearly relishing in such a film. Matt Damon rarely steals the limelight but he gives a confident, entertaining performance in the lead role. Christoph Waltz is a reliable blast of energy as a small person with a pretty high life, delivering some of the film’s biggest laughs. Hong Chau, in one of her first feature film roles, takes a questionable character and fills her with life, transforming what could be a catastrophic misfire into the film’s most unforgettable element. Her performance here will undeniably prove divisive, but I personally would love to see her gain award traction come the season.
Director Alexander Payne has been building towards something big for a while now, and despite its miniature characters and tiny little world, Downsizing feels like the film that could be his most notable in retrospect. It discusses climate change and environmentalism and human nature, and while it rarely pulls these elements into as sharp a focus as you’d perhaps like, Downsizing is engaging and well acted enough to warrant your investment. Maybe Payne didn’t want his film to be ruled by its politics, or maybe he simply failed to really dive into what he’s discussing, but while the film’s lack of genuine political discussion may prove disappointing, there’s still plenty else here to like.
Journeyman (Paddy Considine)
Chloe Walker: Paddy Considine has proven himself both a great director and a great actor, and so the prospect of a film where he both directs and stars was an enticing one. What a shame, then, that Journeyman is so desperately disappointing.
Considine plays boxer Matty Burton, who suffers a severe brain injury after his latest match. The injury completely changes his gentle demeanour, which puts a huge strain on his marriage to Emma (Jodie Whittaker). Luckily he has his boxing friends on hand to help. It’s not that Considine’s performance isn’t good; he’s never less than convincing. The problem here is how emotionally manipulative every single scene feels. Swelling music, tight close-ups during the most sentimental moments, dialogue designed to elicit tears rather than truth. It’s pure awards bait, and that gets wearying quickly.
Beyond that, though, Journeyman is just boring. There’s nothing going on under the surface. There isn’t one surprising scene, and it’s clear where the narrative is heading. Matty is the only character that gets any exploration; the only importance placed on Emma is how soon she can get back to her role in life- supporting Matty. No one else matters here.
Sitting through this movie was a dull and disheartening experience. Here’s hoping Journeyman was just a blip, rather than Considine’s first movie, Tyrannosaur, a moment of accidental genius.
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Ryan Morris: If you can find another film this year that embodies as many emotions and feelings as Lady Bird, I’d like to be made aware of it. In Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut she’s landed on something great, a film that takes on something we’ve all seen before but in such a complex way that it feels entirely new again. To clarify, there’s nothing innately complicated about Gerwig’s film, but her characters are so rich and morally, emotionally complex that Lady Bird surpasses itself and many of its peers purely in how it makes you feel.
Saoirse Ronan, in the middle of what must be a career hot streak right now, gives a funny, touching performance in the film’s titular role. Lady Bird is a complex character in a number of ways, but none more so than in her relationship with her mother. Their bond is shown to exist, we don’t doubt that the two love each other, but the way the film strands them in a permanent state of apprehension is nothing short of genius in how it leaves us unsure of which way every scene between them will go. Laurie Metcalf’s performance is as nuanced and layered as Ronan’s, and the pair’s on screen dynamic is unique and deeply felt.
One of Lady Bird’s biggest triumphs is how it allows every character their own moment, even if it takes place in the background or only lasts a second. Lady Bird’s first boyfriend gets a small subplot that leads to one of the film’s most touching moments, her best friend is filled with characteristics the film only touches upon but that land like a bombshell. Lady Bird takes on a conventional story but focuses on the elements most films leave in the background, and it crafts a lead character you’ll root for even in her worst moments while it does so. Every joke hits the landing and every emotional beat is rooted in something bigger yet more personal. It’s a film that feels enormous even at its smallest and one I’d challenge anyone not to fall in love with.
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs)
Ryan Morris: The Lovers, a 90 minute comedy drama from Azazel Jacobs, is sometimes very funny and occasionally very moving, but it never seems to coalesce into a complete film. It’s based around a married couple (played brilliantly by Tracy Letts and Debra Winger), who are both cheating on each other but suddenly find a new lease of life in their marriage, yet this sudden reinvigoration of their feelings for each other takes too long to arrive. We’re left watching likeable people cheat on each other for 45 minutes before any kind of complexities arrive in the film, and it doesn’t make for very compelling viewing.
Letts and Winger are natural in their roles, and both serve up a decent amount of laughs in the film’s funny but lacking first act, yet the script seems ill prepared to fully exploit their talents. The Lovers hints at making use of physical comedy, but never commits to it. It’s an awkward blend of embarrassment humour, cringe comedy, and genuinely smart, funny dialogue – when it works it’s great, but when it doesn’t the feeling is overwhelmingly frustrating. It doesn’t help that the two people the couple are cheating with are thinly sketched and devoid of motive other than “break up with your husband/wife or I’ll be sad”. It leaves the film’s entire first half lacking any real stakes.
Eventually The Lovers reaches its pivotal scene – the arrival of the couple’s son, Joel, with his new girlfriend – and finally the film starts to explore the potential outcomes of all that’s been happening. The comedy is sidelined for some genuinely touching scenes, particularly a brief but deeply moving scene of Joel breaking down in front of his girlfriend – but still the film doesn’t quite achieve greatness. Perhaps if it did it would be enough to salvage it, but alas this simply isn’t the case. The Lovers is a fleetingly enjoyable film, but it’s not one I’d recommend for anything more than a middling, easy 90 minutes that requires little to no brainpower.
The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
Chloe Walker: Brady (Brady Jandreau) is a rodeo rider recovering from a serious brain injury. Whilst it hasn’t affected him mentally, he’s been advised not to ride horses, and certainly not to compete in rodeos, anymore. Brady grapples with the question of how to move on with life now that his reason for living has been taken away.
The Rider gets much of its considerable power from its proximity to reality. The family in the film are a family in real life, and Brady’s injury really happened. Though director Chloé Zhao embellishes their story a little with extra characters and artistic license, for all intents and purposes, Brady’s struggle was a real struggle. That adds an authenticity to the film that would have been hard to manufacture. Zhao presents Brady’s inner conflict with an intimate, tactile lens. From the many scenes of him communing with horses, to those where he is traversing the wide-open moonlit plains, The Rider is always visually arresting.
The story is full of juxtapositions. The bawdy machismo of Brady’s cowboy friends is contrasted with the unabashed love of his learning-disabled sister (Lilly Jandreau). The fluorescent lights and monotony of the store he works in post-injury is the opposite of the vast South Dakotan plains where he rode before. Brady can no longer do what he loves to do, but other options are depressingly limited; everything is too dangerous or too boring.
Dealing with a host of issues around masculinity and purpose, and filmed with tremendous empathy and a real eye for the land, The Rider is a small film of great beauty and great resonance.
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
Alistair Ryder: Guillermo del Toro is one of the most sincere filmmakers in Hollywood. No matter whether he’s making a comic book movie sequel, or a megabudget film where robots fight Kaiju monsters, he claims that every single entry in his filmography is as personal to him as the last – his affection for the gothically inclined pop culture of his youth shining through in every frame of his films. For the first act of The Shape of Water, his stunning return to form following the divisive Crimson Peak, it appears that something has changed – and that the director’s tongue may be lodged in his cheek for the first time. What follows couldn’t be further from that initial impression: a lovelorn tribute to Hollywood melodramas, with an aching emotional sincerity that rendered me speechless through its effectively simple power.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute janitor at a government laboratory that specialises in top secret information. Elisa doesn’t lead a lonely life, as she has warm friendships with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) – but her inability to speak, after having her vocal chords forcibly removed as a child, finds it harder to communicate in a romantic capacity. One day, a creature known only as an “asset” (del Toro regular Doug Jones) is taken in for examination, which Elisa instantly, secretly becomes intrigued by, quickly forging a friendship which is jeopardised by her superior (a characteristically slimy Michael Shannon) wanting rid of the supposedly Godlike creature she is building a relationship with behind everybody’s back.
Del Toro has assembled what is, for my money, the finest ensemble cast of 2017 for this film – a murderers row of exquisite character actors, many of whom deliver their greatest work here. In the speech-free central performance, Hawkins is bet-your-house-on-it-now Oscar worthy, managing to beautifully convey the journey from being alone to unexpectedly falling in love through facial expressions alone. A standout sequence where she finds herself disappearing into the same love-stricken Hollywood movies she watches obsessively made me cry tears of joy, so perfectly did it embrace the character’s inner feelings of love, and del Toro’s admiration for the Hollywood extravaganzas of that bygone era.
Elsewhere in the cast, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer provide solid comic relief – yet their characters are far more than sidekick punchlines. Jenkins may get the funniest quotes, yet there is something deeply sad about an elderly gay man still searching for a love that has alluded him all his life.
The Shape of Water is del Toro’s finest film since Pan’s Labyrinth, and certainly the best film he has ever made in the English language. It is also the strangest film he has made by quite some distance, one that works so effectively because he initially plays the concept of a romantic coupling of a woman and a merman-esque creature for oddball laughs. Slowly, del Toro increases the heartfelt sincerity, building to an emotionally overwhelming third act that presents its central relationship without a single shard of irony – a testament to the oft-repeated maxim that love has no boundaries, that transforms that corny sentiment into something incredibly powerful.
A sincere love story, especially one as nakedly influenced by mid 20th century musicals and melodramas as The Shape of Water, isn’t a film that particularly cares about being cool, and will likely be the subject of a derisory backlash by a certain type of film fan upon release. Well, I don’t care about appearing cool – this is the best, most beautiful film I’ve seen all year, from a director whose love of cinema and the power of love itself proves infectious.
Ryan Morris: Before the screening of The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro revealed that this is his favourite film of his to date. It isn’t hard to see why; this is a story filled with love and warmth and optimism, but tinged with such anger and sadness. It’s a film that relies on hope but never ignores fear, a film that relishes in originality but never forgets to simply tell us a story. Del Toro is a storyteller, and with The Shape of Water he’s delivered something both quietly touching and loudly, boldly unique.
At the core of his film is a terrific ensemble cast – Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon are all reliably great – but if you don’t come away from The Shape of Water talking about Sally Hawkins, you probably weren’t paying attention. In a near wordless role, Hawkins brings to life the complexities of del Toro’s character, embodying her life spirit in her mannerisms and her deep-seated sadness through her facial expressions. Hawkins may not speak a word through the film, but she doesn’t need to for us to understand character – we hear her loud and clear, and Oscar bells are surely ringing. One scene does in fact grant Hawkins the use of her voice: it’s a wholly unexpected sequence, but I might even argue it’s also the film’s most profoundly brilliant moment.
Building to a tense, thrilling final act, The Shape of Water never sacrifices its emotional core, resulting in a film that leaves you with a bigger lump in your throat than you might’ve expected – and it’s certainly an ending you won’t forget any time soon. Del Toro has struck gold here, with a modern story paradoxically set in the past that simply overflows with personality and oozes the feeling of a director in full command of both his heart and his craft. This is one of those films they’re going to be talking about for years to come.
Small Town Crime (Nelms Brothers)
Alistair Ryder: If Shane Black didn’t have a penchant for winning dialogue, or a knack for subtly subverting genre conventions, then he would likely have made something as uninspired as the wannabe transgressive neo-noir Small Town Crime. It’s the sort of film that feels like it was cryogenically frozen in the nineties, only to subject itself to cinemagoers now, when its aping of Shane Black (and to a lesser extent, Tarantino) aesthetics would have felt slightly less stale, albeit equally derivative of a better storyteller.
Get your played out neo noir trope bingo cards at the ready for this plot synopsis. John Hawkes stars as Mike Kendall, an alcoholic ex-cop who encounters a dead body, and takes it upon himself to become a private detective to investigate this case further. As he investigates, he finds a dark underworld in his sleepy suburban locale, from an abundance of shady “businessmen”, to a plethora of prostitutes. The film isn’t sexist, but it is sloppy when it comes to handling its female characters – Octavia Spencer, an executive producer on the project, is the closest thing to a fleshed out character as Mike’s adoptive sister, even though she remains spectacularly underused.
Directors Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms (credited here as the Nelms Brothers) don’t put any distinctive twist on the above narrative – it plays out exactly how you’d expect, which is somewhat remarkable considering the twisty nature of the story itself. Small Town Crime is so overly familiar, that I found myself forgetting it mere moments after exiting the auditorium. The rave reviews it has received elsewhere are mind-boggling, as this felt like a straight-to-DVD thriller from 20 years prior, that has only just resurfaced now, in an age where it can’t help but feel stale and outdated.
Ryan Morris: Remember Wind River? Y’know, that really great Taylor Sheridan film that came out just this year? Imagine that, but strip it of the intricate dialogue, the well-rounded and fleshed-out characters, the stunningly cold cinematography, and its political framework. In other words, take away everything that made it one of the year’s best films. What you’re left with will probably look a lot like Small Town Crime.
This isn’t exactly bad filmmaking, it’s just dull. Everything on the screen is pretty much just fine, it doesn’t repulse you or make you cringe but it doesn’t really leave you feeling very excited either. The film’s visual style is plain, rarely do you get any shot that poses any kind of personality or intricacy. The performances are solid all round, but you’re not going to come away with a new favourite actor. The story is interesting, but it tells itself like it’s already bored of its own plot twists. Everything works, but nothing stands out.
There’s just a general lack of energy and identity to Small Town Crime, so much so that it’s tough not to become frustrated by how bland the film is. It all culminates in a lengthy shootout that seems to last for ages, and by the time the bad guys are reloading for the umpteenth time you’ll probably want to shout at the screen for it all to be over. Not because what you’re watching is offensively bad or poorly made, just because you’ll be bored stiff. Small Town Crime would probably suffice if you aimlessly flicked the TV on in search of a decent mystery story, but it isn’t really worth actively seeking out.
So Help Me God (Yves Hynant & Jean Libon)
Alistair Ryder: Imagine a politically incorrect Belgian Judge Judy, and you will likely have accurately pictured examining magistrate Anne Gruwez, the subject of this flippant documentary from Jean Libon and Yves Hinant. The directors are well known in their native country for their work on long-running TV series Strip-Tease, which follows bizarre subjects and real life stories, but without voiceover or contextual interviews – without seeing this series, the audience can safely assume that their approach to dealing with Anne Gruwez is safely within their wheelhouse.
Gruwez is a fascinating woman, the sort of personality whose lack of filter ensures every other dialogue exchange is hilarious, regardless of whether she intends it to be. Although her job involves being subjected to harrowing real life stories on a daily basis, her natural gallows humour stops her from ever being affected – she can happily go to a post-mortem where a corpse is being exhumed (depicted in highly graphic detail) and not be remotely phased by it. But to the credit of the directors, it is clear that their purpose is never to shock or offend. For me, the only painful sequence was when Anne spoke with a prostitute who specialises in BDSM, who was more than happy to discuss her highly specific torture methods to an uncomfortably precise degree.
However, merely having an engaging interview subject with an irreverent sense of humour doesn’t necessarily make an engaging feature length effort. It was hard to shake the feeling that, knowing the background of the directors, that this was just an episode of their documentary series extended to feature length – and for all the provocative subject matter on the table, So Help Me God rarely transcends its surface level provocations to offer a deeper insight into its central subject.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Ryan Morris: Writing a script as pitch black as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might be one of the toughest things any writer could do. Balancing the subtler dark undertones with the more obvious, in your face commentary is a challenge in itself, but when you have to combine all of this with a roster of quirky, deeply enjoyable characters and find a tone that works with all of these components – well, I’m amazed Three Billboards even made it to the screen. In fact, I’m more than amazed, I’m downright delighted – this is one of the year’s very best.
Martin McDonagh’s script is without question the film’s strongest core component – it flits between being darker than a countryside night sky and genuinely moving with various characters – but none of it would work without Frances McDormund’s sensational performance. She spits out the sharp dialogue as if it’s coated in venom, making every “bitch” and every “fuck” – and, trust me, there are a lot of them – funny even when they otherwise wouldn’t be. But she also embeds Mildred with the sadness that would come with a person of this type in this story, resulting in a performance and a character as layered as they are fun to watch.
In fact, each character in Three Billboards benefits from this same strength. Every person here would be a bonafide scene stealer in their own film, and yet here they all are on screen together. Every performance is in keeping with the film’s tone, every character is unforgettable. The fact that the film even finds time to comment on the current political climate in a wide variety of ways is astounding, and the way it does so with such clarity and precision even with so much else on its mind is a borderline miracle. Three Billboards is one of those films that comes along once every decade or so, and it leaves you with a smile on your face as big as the question marks in your mind when you come back out to face the world again afterwards.
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Andrew Winter: You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay‘s belated follow-up to We Need To Talk About Kevin, is a devastating adaptation of Jonathan Ames‘s short story of the same name. Ames is perhaps best known for creating HBO comedy Bored To Death, but laughs are decidedly thin on the ground here. The outstanding Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a tormented Gulf War veteran turned hammer-wielding force of nature, who specializes in rescuing underage girls from sex traffickers. His latest case sees him hired to extract Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenage daughter of a senator, from a Manhattan brothel. But proceedings quickly go south and he loses the girl, dragging him into a quagmire of political corruption and further brutality.
Ramsay isn’t interested so much in plot or action, her film’s gimlet eye focused far more on the damaged psyche of her protagonist. Joe has seen too many terrible things and committed too many terrible acts, and moments from the worst of them haunt him to the point where he frequently contemplates suicide. Painful memories are Joe’s constant companions and Ramsay uses that idea to talk about violence and its consequences; how the sheer weight of what he has seen and done is slowly but surely dragging him down to a very dark place from which there can be no return.
There are certainly shades here of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – still the touchstone for movies about damaged anti-heroes – but Ramsay‘s film is a far less talky, far more impressionistic affair, with Joe Bini’s bravura editing and Jonny Greenwood’s rumbling score doing much of the heavy lifting, as we take a painful peek into the broiling cesspit of our protagonist’s subconscious. You Were Never Really Here might seem slight at first but, like Joe padding down a darkened corridor, hammer in hand, its power to discomfit and unnerve creeps up on you.
Ryan Morris: I wasn’t really sure what to expect from You Were Never Really Here, but I certainly didn’t anticipate feeling this disappointed by it. I’m struggling to fully pinpoint what it is about the film that held me at such a distance from it: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is powerful and committed; the film is shot effectively; the soundtrack is a fantastic blend of quiet, atmosphere-building ambience to loud, screeching strings. This is an undeniably bold, well-made film – so why did I feel so bored by it?
The story is admirably simple, and Phoenix’s character immediately feels at home in the world the film is selling to us, but there’s an annoying lack of depth to the film’s unique atmosphere. I can’t think of another film that feels similar to You Were Never Really Here, but this may be the rare case where that isn’t really a good thing. The film’s atmosphere is less intense than it is unpleasant, and the infrequent but strong doses of violence don’t quite gel with the rest of the film’s tone. Director Lynne Ramsay jumps back and forth between the two styles but never pulls them firmly together; rather than feel unhinged it just feels scattershot.
Once You Were Never Really Here springboards into its crescendo, things get more interesting – and the final sequence is admittedly fantastic in its ambiguity – but it’s a case of too little too late. I can appreciate the directorial artistry on show here, but Ramsay’s film just isn’t interesting enough to sustain such a bold, experimental style. Films this weird need to be rooted in something, and You Were Never Really Here has nothing holding it to the ground, resulting in a feature that flies off the rails erratically and never quite finds what it’s looking for.
And that concludes our LFF coverage for this year! Which of these movies are you most excited to see?
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.