The BFI London Film Festival 2018

Most of us primarily associate autumn with changes in the natural landscape: leaves falling thick and fast, rapidly shortening days, the last vestigial traces of summer heat. Yet it is also a great time for lovers of all things cultural. Many theatres, opera houses, and concert halls begin new seasons in autumn, stretching through to the following spring. Moreover, one of the most exciting cultural events happens in my home city: the BFI London Film Festival.

I love festival season. Hundreds of films from around the globe are shown across London. The films themselves run on time and without adverts. Directors, cinematographers, and actors give post-film Q+As, and even sometimes mingle in the bar afterwards. There’s a palpable enthusiasm in the air.

It’s my fourth time going to the festival this year, and it was undoubtedly my best yet. I started slowly, catching what I could after work; then, over the last weekend, I dashed around trying to see as much as I could. On Saturday I almost missed a film after jostling for space on the tube amidst crowds of Brexit demonstrators. Overall I managed to see fourteen films – eight of them over that last weekend. Here are my thoughts on what I saw.


Some highlights

One of my favourite films of the festival was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest from the Coen brothers. Originally envisioned as a television series, it’s an anthology film, formed of six different stories all set in the Old West. The stories vary wildly in tone and subject, and no character appears in more than one, but it’s a testament to the Coens’ endless creativity that it all coheres very effectively. So we have a brooding, sombre tale of a disabled theatre performer and his unscrupulous promoter; a determined Tom Waits searching for gold in a bucolic mountain valley; and a spooky carriage ride where all is not as it seems. But my favourite story was “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” itself – a barmy, guffaw-inducing, what-the-hell-just-happened triumph, with a white-suited Tim Blake Nelson singing on a horse and speaking directly to camera in a loquacious cowboy drawl. It’s the Coens at their most cartoonish, and I laughed uproariously. The film will be on Netflix in November, and is worth seeing just for that segment alone.

Buster Scruggs 1
Tim Blake Nelson in the hilarious “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Another highlight was Stan and Ollie. It’s based around a tour of Britain in the 1950s by Stan Laurel (played by Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (played by John C. Reilly), and the personal and professional conflicts that arise as a result. I have loved Laurel and Hardy since I was a child, and this was a real treat. Steve Coogan is great, but John C. Reilly is astonishing, making it look as if Oliver Hardy has walked off one of his movies into his own biopic. The two constantly riff off each other in a compelling and believable way, and the film is an enjoyable testament to one of cinema’s most legendary partnerships.

Stan and Ollie
John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel

John C. Reilly also appeared in The Sisters Brothers, a late addition to the festival programme. The film is a laid-back western which balances strong violence and coal-black humour with musing explorations of masculinity, fraternity, and parenthood. It’s brilliantly observed, and shot with piercing detail by Jacques Audiard – such as the moment when John C. Reilly shoots a load of goons sent to kill him without bothering to put his shoes on first.

I also managed to get tickets to the first UK screening of Terry Gilliam’s new film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam has been trying to get various versions of the film off the ground for about 29 years, and to finally see it in a cinema is an extraordinary achievement on the part of the director. It made me think of Goethe, whose poem Faust was only released towards the end of his life, the product of XX years of work. It can certainly be said that both Gilliam and Goethe are astonishing in their pursuit of creative expression. But the film is not a Faust-like masterpiece – parts of it work better than others, and tonally it lurches around quite a bit. Nevertheless, it is very enjoyable, with some great laughs, and a solid injection of Gilliam’s usual woozy surrealism.


The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Gilliam’s (eventual) triumph: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”


Global cinema

One of the best parts of the London Film Festival is the ability to see films from many different parts of the world – and to be thrust headlong into an entirely different sphere of experience. One of the best foreign films I saw was Birds of Passage, by the Colombian director Ciro Guerra. It’s not quite as good as Embrace of the Serpent, Guerra’s previous film, but it demonstrates again his remarkable skill as a storyteller and a visual stylist. The film is a brilliantly explosive story set among the desert-inhabiting Wayuu clan of northern Colombia. The film explores how the clan are affected by the rise of drugs smuggling from the 1960s onwards, and the consequences that this has for the families and society of the clan. The film works effectively as a gangster thriller, but also incorporates a number of different strands – such as family drama and surrealism – making the film seem both fully familiar and completely distant.

Birds of Passage
Ciro Guerra’s gripping “Birds of Passage”

The Austrian film Angelo was another highlight, focusing on the life of a young black slave in eighteenth-century Viennese court society. It’s a terrific and startling exploration of the European desire to possess black bodies, and ends in a truly shocking way. Five actors play the main character, and all are convincing enough to make the transition seem seamless. They all portray the character with an emotional detachment characteristic of the actors in the films of Robert Bresson: there are no great histrionics, but we are able to read into their blank faces a full range of anguish.

Very different in tone was The Prey, an impressively mounted Cambodian action film. It focuses on a corrupt prison governor who allows three rich people to hunt a group of prisoners in the middle of a forest. Of course, not all goes to plan. It’s an intriguing premise and the action sequences are pleasantly thrilling, especially given the country’s limited film production resources. A higher budget was visible in the Korean film The Spy Gone North, a slickly-done political thriller about espionage on the Korean peninsula. I knew virtually nothing about the story beforehand but found its exploration of North-South tensions very exciting. A gentler pace was seen in the Egyptian crowd-pleaser Yomeddine¸ which revolves around a leper who journeys across Egypt on a horse and cart in order to try and locate surviving members of his estranged family. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but humorous throughout, and intriguing in that the main actor actually has leprosy.

The crowd-pleasing “Yomeddine”


Show don’t tell

I saw a number of films this year that in visual terms were utterly spectacular. Chief among them was Shadow, the new film from the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, most known for the films Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and for choreographing the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. Shadow is dazzlingly designed – the sets, locations, and costumes are cast in monochrome, with the only colour stemming from the warm hues of skin and the dark red splattering of blood. It’s more like a chamber piece than some of his former films, with court intrigue the main driver of the plot. That said, there’s a jaw-dropping scene in which knife-adorned umbrellas are used as weapons – I genuinely gasped out loud.

Shadow 2
Zhang Yimou’s unforgettable “Shadow”

Another well-designed film was John Carpenter’s The Fog, restored and re-released as part of the festival. I really enjoyed this, and not just because I happened to be sitting in the same cinema as Edgar Wright. While I wasn’t massively frightened during the film, I was certainly creeped out. Carpenter is a master of creating horror images which endure in the mind long after the film has finished, and he certainly succeeds here – I have thought often of the clouds of fog enveloping the horizon, and the sudden appearance of ghostly figures, before I have gone to bed in subsequent days.

The fog
John Carpenter’s chilling “The Fog”

A different sort of weather phenomenon was on display in Arctic, in which a mysterious man stranded in the Arctic, played by Mads Mikkelsen, battles thick snow and icy winds in his attempt to find safety. It’s a visceral, physical, and unexpectedly assured debut from director Joe Penna, whose filmmaking background is on Youtube. There are great performances from Mikkelsen, and also from an enormous polar bear who almost mauls him to death.

Mads Mikkelsen in Joe Penna’s “Arctic”

A somewhat calmer experience was The Old Man and the Gun, which focuses on the real-life felon Forrest Tucker, a gentlemanly American who continued to rob banks well into his seventies. The film has a lovely aesthetic, shot on 16mm for a real vintage look, and has a great performance from Robert Redford in what is very likely his last film. But despite its sheen, the film lacks dramatic tension, and I wasn’t fully engaged by it.


And finally…

One festival experience in particular was utterly extraordinary, and unlike any other. This was The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show. Over the past few years the BFI has been restoring a number of “large-format” films produced between 1896 and 1901 by William Dickson, a pioneer of early cinema. While these films will be made available online next year, as part of the festival they were shown at the BFI IMAX with a live orchestra and introductions by Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s silent film curator.

The Great victorian
One of my favourite images from “The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show”

The films – some mere fragments of a few seconds’ length, some as long as a minute and a half – provided an intriguing insight into the Victorian period. But the projection of the films on the biggest screen in Britain allowed the audience not just to see this period, but to be immersed in it. Huge ships careered towards the audience; Boer war soldiers stood tall; members of the royal family passed by large crowds; and “phantom rides” on trains and buses saw the landscape rush dizzyingly past. It was genuinely astonishing. Of all the films I saw at the London Film Festival this year – and there were many – it was The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show which was the greatest testament to the visceral power of cinema – not only in preserving a moment in time, but in thrusting an audience into an entirely different world.


Classic Movies – Ran


At a castle set in the mountains, an aged Lord and his small retinue of soldiers and advisers are viciously attacked by armies led by two of his three sons. As the Lord’s retinue is gradually annihilated, the violence is observed in detached fashion, through a series of distant wide shots. Arrows and bullets fly in quick succession, horses trample on scores of bodies, blood seeps into the earth. The Lord, trapped in a burning tower, looks steadfastly down at the ground, visibly descending into madness. What is more, for most of this scene, there is no diegetic sound. We hear no shouts of aggression or pain, no gunshots, no songs of steel. The shocked viewer is left only with Toru Takemitsu’s brilliant score, elaborating this terrifying visual distillation of chaos, in which its actors appear to be almost ghostly.

Ran 3
“this terrifying visual distillation of chaos”

It was not all so long ago that the same Lord sat on the side of a mountain, amicably addressing each of his three sons. Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem. Lord Hidetora is reminded through a dream of his looming mortality, and decides to give up most of his power to each of his three sons, Taro, Jiro and Saburo – though Hidetora expects to maintain the title of ‘Great Lord’. While Taro and Jiro accept graciously, Saburo attacks these plans, asking why he thinks his sons will be loyal to  him, given that Hidetora has previously used violent means to maintain his own power. Enraged by this, Hidetora banishes Saburo, but in doing so loses his greatest advocate; it is not long before his other sons begin to violently contest his authority, while both are in turn held in thrall by the Machiavellian siren, Lady Kaede.

Ran 4
“Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem”

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear will immediately notice some parallels within the narrative. Shakespeare’s Lear also decides to relinquish most of his power to his (female) progeny, with disastrous consequences. King Lear inspires Ran with much of its story, but also with much of its visual landscape. There was a precedent to this. Back in 1957 Kurosawa had made Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, which used almost no dialogue from the original text. Instead, the miasmic horror inherent in Shakespeare’s language was evoked through the cinematography. The ‘blasted heath’ was translated into copious amounts of rain and the thickest of fog, all filmed and controlled with precision by the director. In the case of Ran, the totalising language of chaos and disorder in King Lear is embedded within the initially wordless scene of violence already described, a masterpiece of visual scale and emotion.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t many quieter moments in Ran; the overall pace is at times quite slow. In particular, the opening scenes of Hidetora with his sons are marked by leisurely formality, something accentuated by Kurosawa’s decision to use mostly wide shots rather than incorporating close-ups of faces and objects. This achieves a distancing effect – we observe the characters, safe in our seats, later to be horrified at the carnage of stormy ambition. But this apparently ‘slow’ style is consistent with his method at this point in time. Kurosawa made Ran late in his life, in his mid-70s, by which time he had lost almost all of his sight. He had spent a staggering ten years preparing every single shot in the film as a painting, from which those who worked on the film operated. While I wasn’t aware of this fact while watching the film, the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots were readily apparent. In one stunning sequence, Lord Hidetora emerges from the flaming building described above, walking slowly down a long flight of stone steps. He knows his soldiers and followers are all dead. He is flanked by the yellow-clad supporters of Jiro on the left, and the red-clad of Taro on the right. The placement of the soldiers forms a remarkable piece of symmetry which intentionally clashes with the unruly fire in the background; the lone Hidetora, his mind raging like the fire, meets the cold violent fact of military organisation. Framing is everything to Kurosawa, but also detail; 1,400 costumes and suits of armour were made for the film in a process spanning two years. It is difficult to imagine such effort being put into a film today.

Ran 1 part 2
“the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots are readily apparent”

That said, it’s also commendable that Kurosawa achieves some exhilarating performances from his cast. Especially commendable are Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the scheming, murderous Lady Kaede. Nakadai, partly with the help of prosthetics, achieves the transition from venerable septuagenarian Lord to tortured, damaged vagrant with the greatest of passion. Passion also marks out Harada, although of a different kind; as she coaxes Taro and then Jiro into following her commands, you are never quite sure whether she will continue to speak quietly or snap into high-pitched, knife-wielding threats.

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Mieko Harada as the “scheming, murderous Lady Kaede”

There are some films that are recognisably great, but which fail to stick long in the memory. Ran is so utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil (Kurosawa thought it was a metaphor for nuclear warfare), that it has compelled me to try and verbalise my experiences watching it, and in doing so to revive a film blog that I haven’t written on for nearly two years. Ran is for showing for a short while in a number of cinemas across the UK. If you get the chance to see it, you simply cannot miss it. It is a masterpiece from a director at the very top of his form, an epic driven not by copious CGI or contrivance, but by the patience of those who made it and the strength of its nihilistic convictions.

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“utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil”


Review – The Riot Club

2014, 107 mins, 15, Dir. Lone Scherfig, starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons and Douglas Booth

The Riot Club
The Riot Club

The upper classes and their foibles have had a peculiar endurance though much of world cinema history. In La Regle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir’s country-house gentry were potent allegories for the moral corruption of pre-WW2 French society; in turn many of Hitchcock’s characters were frustrated rich Americans with polished accents. There is something inexplicably fascinating in observing these financially empowered people and how they live, perhaps especially so when they behave in a way that is mortally, abominably offensive.

Lone Scherfig’s new film The Riot Club understands this fact. Drawing from the 2010 play Posh by Laura Wade, who also writes the screenplay, it depicts members of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club, an infamous society at Oxford University known for its exclusive membership policy and drunken, ostentatious dinners. We quickly become acquainted with the ten impeccably-dressed members of the Riot Club, including two newly-inducted first-years, as they trash each other’s rooms and race around town in expensive cars. They use their parents’ money in profligate and unseemly ways and seem to have their futures planned out for them, as symbolised by Tom Hollander’s Jeremy, a Machiavellian MP. The club is not just for Oxford, Jeremy tells the boys, it is for life, as the political connections it offers can prove supremely useful to get out of any difficulties.

The film actually commences around the Georgian era, where we see a gloriously wigged Oxford don (hilariously referred to as that immortal student noun, ‘legend’) engaging in wild sexual acts worthy of A Rake’s Progress. He is stabbed by the unfortunate husband of one of his wenches, leading to the inauguration by his friends of the tradition-bound institution of the film’s title. These historical scenes only further underline the debauched behaviour of the modern-day club members; their elaborate drinking rituals, alcoholic snobbery and financial waste are as archaic as they are arcane. Scherfig assembles a sterling male cast that, combined with the consistently profane script, portray with great invention the views and traits of these characters. In particular, Sam Claflin proves deceptively destructive as Alistair Ryle, the first-year whose violent right-wing politics threaten to induce actual violence. Also impressive is Holliday Grainger as Lauren, the unpretentious Mancunian student who is caught up in the snobbish, machismo-heavy atmosphere of the richer male students.

This seems rather familiar...
This seems rather familiar…
...Ah yes. This.
…ah yes. This.

The central set-piece is an agonisingly long dinner at a local pub, a scene of heavy drinking and rampant class and sexual tensions. It is here that the problems of the film begin to emerge. For all its filming on Oxford rooftops and in country mansions, The Riot Club never quite escapes its stage origins. The dinner scene, confined mostly to a single room, is arguably stretched to excess in terms of actual running time, its cinematic impact diminished. Moreover the behaviour of the Riot Club members seems, ironically, very exaggerated. Sam Claflin’s astonishing line ‘I’m sick to f—ing death of poor people!’ seems absurd even when his character is intoxicated; the final act of stupendous masculine violence, following attempted prostitution and cocaine usage, is equally inconceivable through lack of real precedent. The film is of course an obviously fictional work in which excess is part of the overall effect. Yet if it tries to portray a class that does exist in England, it must surely do so accurately. When the Oxford admissions department continues earnestly to disassociate itself from ideas of wealth and privilege, and a national press often misunderstands the Oxbridge student experience, one can’t help thinking that a subtler take on the story could have been assumed with wholly greater success.

The Riot Club is very well acted by a superb cast of young performers and portrays Oxford in all its Medieval splendour. Yet it is mired in both its stage origins and its own self-conscious shock value, which troubles attempts at plausibility and empathy.


Review – Boyhood

2014, 166 mins, 15, Dir. Richard Linklater, starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke


Many of the very first short films made at the end of the nineteenth century consisted of basic and eminently familiar scenes; nothing more than a group of workers exiting a factory, or a mother entertaining her baby. Such unembellished productions were produced with the simple intention of depicting life, nothing more or less. Fictional films are frequently diverted from this original mission of cinema, either through quirks of genre or the mere presence of a plot contrivance. It is thus all the more beguiling to sit and watch Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for it is a film that is distinguished not by any conspicuous visual spectacle but by the sheer, recognisable, unvarnished humanity of its subject matter.

Over 166 minutes we follow the physical and mental development of a character called Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a process that sees him grow from the age of five to eighteen. Mason navigates an often bewildering train of experiences at home, school, and out and around Texas. The ever-familiar rites of passage are observed: the awkward transition into puberty, experimentation with alcohol and smoking, tentative first relationships and acrimonious break-ups. Amidst an ever-changing family setting he finds continuity in his mother (Patricia Arquette), his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) who visits every other weekend, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Much is difficult to watch, particularly the scenes of domestic violence that run on a thick layer of tension. Other parts of the film are elegantly charming, as in Mason’s propounding of his philosophy on the obsessive excesses of Facebook and internet culture.

A youthful Ellar Coltrane, early in the filmmaking process
A youthful Ellar Coltrane, early in the filmmaking process

What emerges from this perfectly ordinary life is an extraordinary cinematic power that binds you ceaselessly to the characters. Richard Linklater shot the film over twelve years, using exactly the same actors. It is a colossal, ambitious approach, and all the more satisfying that it succeeds. Ellar Coltrane’s performance is astonishingly assured and natural, making the entire film feel like an experiment in personal improvisation. He is Mason. There are no great speeches or sentimental posturing, even towards the end of our time with him. Yet he is also surrounded by a wealth of equally impressive performers; Ethan Hawke’s gradual transformation from youthful, estranged young father to a maturer man with a new family of his own is one of the greatest pleasures of the film. It is a fitting testament to Linklater’s ability to choose and direct his cast members that there is scarcely one moment that puts us at a remove from his characters; their world, with all its flaws and attractions, effectively becomes our own.

Boyhood acts not only as a chronicle of one life, but also as an assessment of its time. In one memorable scene, Mason’s father attempts to educate him and his sister on the political injustices of the Iraq war; they later request permission to place ‘Obama/Biden’ signs on Texan front lawns prior to the 2008 presidential election. The (predominantly electronic) fixations of our age emerge in school, college and the home. Linklater even rejects an orchestral score in favour of using various popular songs from the nineties and noughties. Although I found the inclusion of Coldplay a little irritating in the first few scenes, the soundtrack generally acts as an effective cultural indicator and is more of a benefit than a loss. Such techniques lend the production a time-capsule quality; indeed, it could almost be a documentary disguised as a fiction film.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason Jr and Sr in Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason Jr and Sr

The question of whether or not the film has some kind of consistent message is a pertinent one. A lot could be said about the presentation of alcohol as a destructive force in relationships; or perhaps comment could be made on the presentation of Mason as something of a counter-cultural figure in his late teens. But the closing moments of Linklater’s odyssey suggests that perhaps there is no ‘point’; it could be seen as nothing more than a truthful evocation of what it means to grow up in the modern world. Parents will love Boyhood for its exhibition of the transience of youth and the pains of looking after a child. Meanwhile, as a young person on the brink of attending university, I found the character of Mason irrepressibly easy to relate to, despite differences of culture and country. It is arguably there that Richard Linklater most succeeds. His style is bold, his actors are virtually indistinguishable from their characters; but it is the quiet domestic moments, the reassuring familiarity of home and school life, the entire mess of growing up, that most endears us. In short, the film is life.



Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel

2014, 99 mins, 15, Dir. Wes Anderson, starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and most other actors and actresses of renown.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style is something you have to be prepared for. ‘Quirky’ isn’t quite the word, for it is not only a colossal understatement, but also something of an insult. Anderson’s persistently symmetrical cinematography, the weirdness of his characters and the apparent absurdity of his humour quite simply escapes literary description (though I will press on regardless). That style has provided some of the most entertaining films of recent years. Moonrise Kingdom, a warm and nostalgic tale of young lovers in a New England town, has proven unforgettable since I saw it in 2012.

The story of this film involves the battle for a family fortune and the theft of an expensive Renaissance painting; this is however merely a framework for a number of hilarious smaller sequences featuring the mellifluous hotel concierge M. Gustave, as well as his lobby boy Zero. This is by far Anderson’s zaniest and most fantastic work yet. It has cats being thrown out of windows, amputated fingers, a dizzying action sequence in a ski run, three different aspect ratios, an astonishing array of cameos from famous actors and actresses, and a vertiginous alpine setting that (despite the title) isn’t even in Budapest. It all makes for a distinctly heady and farcical 99 minutes, one which makes you want to rewatch the entire thing to seek out the bits you’ve missed.

An elevator scene in the film - note newcomer Tony Revolori standing at the back, with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes seated
An elevator scene – note newcomer Tony Revolori standing at the back, with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes seated

The cast is truly remarkable, with regular Anderson favourites Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray appearing in brief cameos amidst an ocean of familiar faces. Tilda Swinton turns in an unrecognisable performance as an octogenarian patron of M. Gustave’s hotel. Willem Dafoe turns up to scowl and mercilessly kill people. Harvey Keitel turns into a tattooed prisoner. Edward Norton turns out a magnificently hirsute upper lip; indeed, the facial hair alone in this film merits academy recognition. Nevertheless the film is really Ralph Fiennes’. Dapper, eloquent and philandering, he provides an uncompromisingly hilarious British centre to the narrative, purring ‘Darling’ at officious soldiers and insecure older women alike.

The marvellous M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, a part specifically written for him by Wes Anderson
The marvellous M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, a part specifically written for him by Wes Anderson

The cinematography is typical Wes Anderson, with an underlying orderliness to everything he shoots and frequent whip-pans from one character to the next. It perfectly fits the outlandish, even Bondian events of the plot. The music isn’t quite as prominent or notable as in some of his previous works – perhaps one of the few disappointments of the film – but nevertheless the ultimate impression is that this is another triumph. That brings us to the question of how it rates in comparison to the director’s past oeuvre. I still think that Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s best, despite the widened ambition and pace of The Grand Budapest Hotel; there is something more personal, more affecting about the former film, particularly as it has autobiographical elements. Nevertheless The Grand Budapest Hotel is a more-than-worthy addition to Anderson’s idiosyncratic world, a satisfyingly deranged cinematic experience that will prove as equally unforgettable as its predecessors.


Facial hair and symmetry: Edward Norton and others in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Facial hair and symmetry: Edward Norton and others in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Review – 12 Years a Slave

2013, 134 mins, 15, Dir. Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Brad Pitt

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

Exactly one year ago this month audiences were treated to the flamboyant and horribly funny Django Unchained. Up to that point it was one of the most realistic depictions of American slavery ever produced, and was lauded as such. While it remains a truly excellent film, there was always a lingering sense that the definitive film on slavery was yet to be made, one that did away with a revenge western plot, that avoided deliberate humour, something that showed the N-word to be a tangible, terrible, harsh, historical term, as opposed to a mere flippant remark.

It is extremely likely that the definitive film on slavery is 12 Years a Slave. It is, quite simply, astonishing.

Steve McQueen’s film is adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African-American who was kidnapped in 1841 and, as the title suggests, sold into slavery. Northup endures beatings, attempted murder and psychological attack under the control of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and cruel plantation owner. As an audience we rail against the injustice both of Northup’s incarceration and of the entire system of slavery, as the brutality of a very dark period of American history manifests itself onscreen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave

It comes as no surprise that 12 Years a Slave is, at times, very difficult to watch. Within minutes of finding out about his kidnapping, Northup protests that he is a free man, and is promptly beaten with a wooden object so hard that it smashes into pieces. The entire beating happens in a single shot; we are given no respite from what is happening. McQueen’s direction, with Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, is unsparing. Frequently such scenes are presented in very long takes, including one genuinely shocking act of savage violence at the end, effectively the dramatic climax of the story. McQueen, as an Englishman, makes sure we know that he is making a very different film about slavery – a film that American directors have ultimately failed to make over the years.

12 Years a Slave is inevitably driven by its characters, and the impeccable casting ensures a wide array of impressive performances. There isn’t one instance of bad acting, a huge relief given the sobering nature of the source material. Ejiofor’s performance here is undoubtedly his best, with much suggested through his facial expressions; his silent articulations of pain and desperation are difficult to forget. Michael Fassbender, a frequent presence in the films of Steve McQueen, is strikingly hostile and sadistic as Edwin Epps. Epps’ cruelty and instability leads not just to physical punishment of his slaves but also to sexual assault, and Fassbender is frighteningly convincing. So too is Lupita Nyong’o. The suffering and torment of her character Patsey is brilliantly conveyed, and she is deservedly gaining awards recognition for what is (surprisingly) her feature film debut. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

The role of the music is also key to the film’s stratospheric success as a piece of drama. In some senses, it acts as a metaphor for the story itself. Hans Zimmer produces an excellent score which on occasion grows metallic, disturbing, almost modern, particularly when Northup is almost killed by racist farmhands. Yet that is offset by the stirring sound of the Negro spirituals sung by the slaves. The song ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, written especially for the film, is sung at a slave funeral, with Northup eventually joining with his fellow prisoners as part of a collective identity. The message is that even amidst the haunting oppression of the white slavemasters, even in darkness, there is hope.

12 Years a Slave is nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Aside from its intelligent direction, mature and balanced performances, and atmospheric music, a great deal of its impact can be assessed by the emotions it arouses. I felt genuine shock at the treatment of the slaves that superseded mere intellectual empathy, revulsion at the sadistic practices of Fassbender’s plantation owner, and a righteous outrage at the historical perpetrators of these terrible atrocities. In other words, the film achieves a rare level of catharsis, one that left me speechless long after the final shot had elapsed. Nothing in recent years has ever so much deserved to clean up at the Academy Awards. 12 Years a Slave is upsetting and exhausting. But it is tremendous proof that the quality of cinema has not declined with the distractions of CGI and 3D, that filmmakers are some of the most important people in our society, and that through dramatic presentation they can so overwhelmingly bring to light historical issues that still have bearing on the material and psychological lives of people in the twenty-first century.

The first shot of the film.
The first shot of the film.


Review – Catching Fire

Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2013, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Francis Lawrence, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Having done such an impressive job with The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross decided soon after it was released to step down from making its sequel, claiming ‘I simply don’t have the time to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make’. An entire fanbase stood on edge as a new director, Francis Lawrence, was found, and castings were made for the multitude of characters introduced in the second book. As I sat in the Odeon Leicester Square on the film’s day of release, my expectations remained high. But they were wildly exceeded; Catching Fire is better than the original in virtually every sense. It may have something to do with the potency of the source material. Or perhaps it is down to an extraordinary combination of direction and performance that renders Katniss Everdeen’s further struggles in the world of Panem in a thrillingly visceral light.

We open in the forests of District 12, the home of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). A stark contrast from the gaudy colours of the Capitol, the landscape is a deep and bitter shade of grey. Before the plot has even begun, we immediately gain the impression that this is an even darker, more downbeat exploration of the dystopian world. Katniss stares across a lake, an inner torment reflected in her eyes. She soon tries to shoot a turkey with an arrow, and imagines that she has instead killed a tribute from the Hunger Games. Her human relationships eternally altered, it is clear that the damage of her previous experiences is truly lasting.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the grey forests of District 12
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the grey forests of District 12

Yet she also has to deal with her status as a symbol of rebellion within the districts. Whereas popular uprising was barely an issue in the previous film, here it dominates the first half.  Representations of the Mockingjay grow ever more common, as do the repressive actions of the hostile, baton-wielding Peacekeepers. It is here where the film rises above its origins as teen fiction and approaches its socio-political themes with gusto. The focus remains on Katniss, nevertheless, and her reaction to these changes as she is torn away from any previous conceptions of normality.

President Snow, having ominously visited Katniss at her home in District 12, later announces that there will be Hunger Games ‘Quarter Quell’; to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Capitol’s victory over the districts, all the surviving tributes will be pooled and may have to fight again. An astonishing act of further repression, Katniss finds herself in all-too-familiar territory as the President seeks to exterminate any indications of rebellion.

Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman debate the latest Games
Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman debate the latest Games

Before seeing the film, I refused to watch a single trailer or look at any official stills; I wanted to experience the visual look of the new arena with no influences other than the book. It was well worth the wait. As Katniss emerged, distressed, into the water-swept vista, I was gulping for breath. Francis Lawrence has created a truly stunning field of combat, a far more intriguing and complex place where surviving in the wilderness, let alone whilst being hunted by other tributes, is extremely difficult. It was just as I had imagined it in the book, and allowed for some truly and utterly sensational set-pieces.

Credit must, of course, be given to the absolutely marvellous Jennifer Lawrence. Whether it is her trauma in the early scenes of the film, or the tension that lies at its end, she consistently justifies her casting with aplomb. There is something about her, a certain uniqueness to her style that allows her to fully embody Katniss and outshine virtually all other performances. And there are some damn good ones in the film, particularly from those playing new characters. Jena Malone unnervingly brings to life the sexually dangerous Johanna Mason; the endlessly adaptable Jeffrey Wright plays Beetee effectively; and Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliantly enigmatic as Plutarch Heavensbee. Elsewhere, Donald Sutherland impresses as the snakelike and penetrating President Snow. While not everyone is outstanding, we should be thankful that Lawrence is as her character truly anchors the story.

Josh Hutcherson, Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence address District 12
Josh Hutcherson, Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence address District 12

The Hunger Games managed to retain some element of shock in the mere idea of teenagers killing each other. Nevertheless, given that cuts were made to secure a 12A rating in the UK, there was an underlying sense that the film wasn’t as violent as Suzanne Collins’ book, and therefore lost something of its power. Catching Fire vastly improves on this flaw. The violence is still 12A-standard, but it is presented differently. It’s much grittier, whether it’s the agonised cries of Gale as he’s punished by being whipped, the bizarre and brutal hazards of the enhanced arena, or the remarkable scene of public execution which Katniss and the audience barely glimpse behind a closing door. It thus feels more relevant to the violent, hostile and media-centric world that Collins did so well to create.

Indeed, the film is astonishingly true to the book in plot, character and tone. Several key moments – not just the arena, but the ending, the meeting with President Snow, and so on – were realised no different to how I thought they would be from reading the book. This will no doubt please the fangirls, and praise must be given to Francis Lawrence for making such a brilliantly balanced adaptation. He handles the novel’s main themes intelligently, and also deals with the love triangle with just the right amount of emphasis. Katniss’ difficult relationships with Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne are certainly explored and require emotional engagement, but such an exploration is done with restraint. It never takes centre stage or is sentimentalised; indeed, it never did so in the book. It remains to be seen if the final two installments of the series, Mockingjay Part 1 and Mockingjay Part 2, will retain this balance. Judging from what I’ve seen Francis Lawrence do already, I’m not at all concerned.

A symbol of resistance in District 11
A symbol of resistance in District 11

Catching Fire is powerfully convincing on every level. Director Francis Lawrence creates the dystopia from Suzanne Collins’ book with remarkable vividness, and the arena is breathtaking. But it’s also a human story, and the cast – led by an admirable Jennifer Lawrence – command audience engagement to a considerable degree. When it ended, I was dumbfounded, a familiar feeling when seeing something that has really overwhelmed me. Catching Fire is bolder, braver, edgier, more effective than The Hunger Games – and I only hope that the next few installments will burn ever brighter.