When the London Film Festival (LFF) rolls into town, the capital transforms into ‘Movieland’. From headline gala premieres and exclusive filmmaker talks to competitions and exposure for up and coming filmmakers, LFF is unmissable, and the 2017 programme proved to be no exception.
I tried to attend as many screenings as I could this year and it was a whirlwind of red carpets, Q&As and outstanding displays of movie making. I didn’t want it to end.
Here are my highlights from the festival.
Royal Bank of Canada Gala of Mudbound
The first screening I attended was Dee Rees’ ‘Mudbound’. Distributed by Netflix, Mudbound is the story of two families with different racial backgrounds, living on a farm in Mississippi during and post World War II. With an all-star cast including Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J Blige, Rob Morgan and Garrett Hedlund, this film is very much an ensemble piece, as each character battles their individual struggles with racism, post-war trauma and family relationships. I felt instantly moved by it’s strong message and powerful story line and, without revealing too much, the harrowing climax took my breath away.
Despite being a historical piece, Mudbound conveys a particular relevance as we compare it to the challenging present day in which we find ourselves. Mary J Blige commented;
“…this film shows just how far we haven’t come”.
If Mudbound does well during awards season, it will become the first Netflix film ever receive a nomination, which would be pioneering for the streaming service and an evolution for the film industry. Dee Rees’ achievements here are also paving the way for future female filmmakers.
Mudbound’s release onto Netflix in November will allow millions of people to view this film and enjoy Rees’ extraordinary piece of work.
An easy favourite of the festival for me.
LFF Connects: Julian Rosenfeldt & Cate Blanchett
On to the BFI Southbank, for an evening with artist Julian Rosenfeldt and the incomparable Cate Blanchett. In 2015, the pair collaborated on a project called ‘Manifesto‘, a 13 channel art installation featuring Cate in 13 different characters, from a female news anchor to a homeless man. By including a fan favourite such as Blanchett on this project, Rosenfeldt exposes his work to the mainstream.
Unfortunately, I missed the 90-minute screening prior to the Q&A, so parts of the discussion were difficult to gauge, however, I enjoyed hearing about Cate’s methods for playing such diverse characters. This project was clearly a huge undertaking for her, in terms of the fast working pace and lack of preparation time between scenes, as a result of the quick turnaround (the film was shot in just 12 days). From the general buzz in the audience, I got the impression that Blanchett clearly achieves greatness in her ability to transform into these characters convincingly.
I’m not familiar with this kind of artistic work, but through Julian’s choice of using such a high profile actress to spearhead his piece, it opens the medium up to a new kind of audience. I certainly feel more inclined to explore such installations further.
Being in the presence of this modern legend of the screen was a thrill and I had to pinch myself once or twice! It is intimate events like this that make the LFF such a significant experience for aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles living in London.
American Express Headline Gala of Battle of the Sexes
The stars were out for the American Express Headline Gala of the Danny Boyle produced ‘Battle of the Sexes’. This highly anticipated film starring Emma Stone as female tennis legend Billie Jean King was also shown at TIFF a few weeks earlier and is expected to do very well at the box office in terms of commercial audiences.
In this autobiographical film, we follow King as she prepares for the infamous 1973 ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match against self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (played brilliantly by Steve Carrell). Along the way, she battles with dramas off the court and on, such as coming to terms with her own sexuality, plus her plight for female equality in the sport.
Stone doesn’t disappoint here and delivers an energized and detailed performance, something that King commented on during the on-stage pre-film Q&A.
“I had no idea I stomped around like that, but clearly I do!”.
Other notable performances include British actress Andrea Riseborough, as King’s love interest and a personal 1980s favourite of mine, Elisabeth Shue, as the long-suffering wife of Bobby Riggs. My inner Back to the Future fan girl lost her cool on the red carpet as I caught sight of Shue!
The themes of feminism and personal conflicts with sexuality come through strongly here and the sporting climax will have you cheering from your popcorn box! It isn’t quite a ‘perfect movie’, and parts of the plot seem rushed at times, however, Battle of the Sexes is a very entertaining film with plenty of appealing aspects for filmgoers.
The Mayfair Hotel Gala of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
To many, Gloria Grahame will be Violet Bick, the promiscuous flirt of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, but to Peter Turner, she was his lover and companion during the final moments of her life.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ stars Annette Bening as the misunderstood starlet, Gloria Grahame, who falls from grace during the height of her career and emerges again as a theatre actress in the UK during the 1970s. It is here, that she meets the young Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and together, they begin a passionate love affair that is tested throughout the course of their brief time together.
The film premiered at Telluride in September and received positive reviews from critics, so I was eager to attend the gala at London.
Annette Bening is once again, a tour de force in the starring role, channelling Grahame’s ruthless determination to survive (in the acting business and beyond) as well as successfully conveying her vulnerable and insecure side, which is captivating for the audience. Jamie Bell holds his own against his co-star and proves that he is capable of commanding the screen in a leading romantic role. Their on-screen chemistry makes the relationship between these unlikely lovers entirely believable and, accompanied by strong support from British darling, Julie Walters, and Kenneth Cranham, as Turner’s parents, the film managed to be relatable to the audience, despite this unusual situation in which the characters find themselves.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a charming picture with a bitter-sweetness that will stay with you after the credits roll.
BAFTA: A Life in Pictures with Annette Bening
With Annette Bening in town, BAFTA joined the celebration of her work by honouring her at their event at the Savoy Hotel. As part of their ‘A Life in Pictures’ series that has featured respective interviews with names such as Kate Winslet, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher plus many others, we took a look back on her illustrious career to date. After spending her first years as a stage actress on Broadway, Bening was finally spotted in the late 1980s and achieved a big break in Valmont, starring alongside a young Colin Firth followed by fan favourite, The Grifters.
Bening’s relaxed manner was endearing and came across as insightful and intelligent when delivering her responses. I particularly enjoyed her discussion on American Beauty where she was candid about her experiences with the cast, her young director Sam Mendes and key scenes that she particularly enjoyed playing. More recently, she starred in 20th Century Women alongside the marvellous Elle Fanning (whom Annette spoke very highly of).
For a woman who works in this very public of industries and is married to Hollywood legend, Warren Beatty, she achieves a private life and respect for her art. It is this privacy that enables her to become an on-screen chameleon for film audiences.
It was a joy to be in the presence of this award-winning actress, especially after enjoying her latest performance in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, just the night before at the LFF.
You can listen to the full interview via the link below.
BFI Patrons Gala of Downsizing
The final gala I attended was the BFI Patrons Gala of ‘Downsizing’. This latest offering from acclaimed director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) is a satirical Sci-Fi drama comedy where Matt Damon (not in attendance on the red carpet) plays hard on his luck, every man, Paul.
When scientists discover how to make people ‘small’, Paul decides to join the many others who seek the good life, by shrinking themselves and join ‘small’ communities. Of course, things don’t go as planned and Paul is taken on a journey of self-discovery. Will he finally find his place in the world? Does a smaller world enable him to become a bigger and better person on the inside?
Payne taps into some relevant topics in Downsizing, such as global warming and the growing global population. This original story captures these themes in a lighthearted way, capturing the audience’s imagination in the process and essentially turning a far fetched idea into a believable future for civilization.3
The all-star cast is strong with stand out performances from the one and only, Christoph Waltz, clearing having lots of fun playing Damon’s charismatic playboy neighbour. We find a star on the rise in Hong Chau. This is a real breakout performance for the petit Thai/American actress, and her role of Ngoc Lan Tran is at the very heart of this film.
Downsizing almost feels like a homage to the surreal family films of the early 90s and it’s bright ‘Danny Elfman‘ style score only added to this notion. Critics are calling it a “mini-masterpiece” and it is great to see a film of such daring imagination hitting the big screen and capturing important contemporary themes.
Payne’s Downsizing will not disappoint – and neither did LFF 2017. Same time next year? Bring on October 2018!
Thank you for reading my highlights! Did you attend LFF this year? What were your highlights? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.