There was much to enjoy at this year’s London Film Festival. As usual there were a few things I missed (especially when it came to live events) but here is a rundown of the things that impressed me.
The opening film was The Last King of Scotland, an absorbing look at former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Seen through the eyes of a Scottish doctor, who by chance becomes his personal physician, it features some terrific performances. Forest Whittaker is a force of nature as the African ruler managing to convey his childlike charm before the plunging us into a dark vortex of terror. James McAvoy is finally given a role of weight and substance and he manages to hold his own for most of the film against Whittaker, who delivers one of the best performances this year. Although it has taken certain liberties with historical fact, director Kevin McDonald in his debut feature manages to portray things with the same intensity he brought to documentaries like One Day in September and Touching the Void.
Infamous is the ‘other film’ about Truman Capote. Director Douglas McGrath had the misfortune to be preparing a film version of the writing of In Cold Blood at the same time that director Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman were getting ready with their version. Although Capote is still the superior film in many respects, Infamous does actually hold up very well. One of the main reasons is the high quality of the acting, in particular British actor Toby Jones who gives a remarkable interpretation of the writer. His physical resemblance to Capote is eerie and he also conveys a dandyish sense of humour that was a little lacking in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work (great though that was). Watch out too for some sterling supporting performances from Daniel Craig as convicted killer Perry Smith and Sandra Bullock as Nelle Harper Lee. One upshot of two Capote movies could be that film studies classes will be comparing them for years to come.
Another film about a notable 20th century figure was the documentary The US vs John Lennon, directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. Taking a look at the former Beatle and his political activism in the late 60s and 70s it combined an impressive amount of new footage with Lennon’s music from that era. If you are a Beatles or Lennon fan you may be familiar with his anti-war protests and struggle to avoid deportation from New York. But if not, it is still an eye opening tale, not least because of the numerous parallels with current events.
Stranger Than Fiction plays like a literary version of The Truman Show, where a lowly tax inspector (Will Ferrell) finds out that he is actually the character of a book being written by a respected author (Emma Thompson). For about an hour the concept works a treat but sadly it runs out of steam after that as it never really gets to grips with merging the two worlds of fiction and reality. Having said that, Ferrell is very good in a more subdued role and Dustin Hoffman gives amusing support as an English professor trying to get to the bottom of the problem. Maggie Gyllenhall provides the love interest but her character is too underwritten to be truly believable. It is still worth seeing and the boldness of the concept may lead to some scriptwriting nominations for Zach Helm but I couldn’t help feeling that a greater film was there for the taking.
Director Todd Field’s Little Children is one of the best films to come out of America this year. If there is any justice it thius follow up to 2001s In the Bedroom will be a major contender this awards season. Kate Winslet stars as a frustrated housewife stuck in a privileged Boston suburb with a husband who doesn’t love her and a lifestyle she can’t stand. When she begins an affair with a handsome but married neighbour (Patrick Wilson) she also becomes aware that a convicted child molester has moved into the area. To say too much else would spoil some of the many surprises in this intelligent and many layered film. The acting is strong all across the board and different shifts in tone as the narrative unfolds are brilliantly handled.
On the other hand, Breaking and Entering is a major disappointment given the talent involved in making it. After the historical sweep of previous films like The English Patient and Cold Mountain, director Anthony Minghella has opted to make a drama set in contemporary London. An architect (Jude Law) ends up falling for the immigrant mother (Juliette Binoche) of a criminal who keeps breaking into his new offices near Kings Cross. Despite having the technical expertise you might expect from Minghella and featuring a touching performance from Binoche, the narrative drowns in a checklist of half baked liberal concerns (immigration, crime, kids with mental problems) and never explores any of them with any depth or bite.
Half Nelson was the real treat of the festival for me. It isn’t that often that you come across a debut film that is so assured and well made as this. Ryan Gosling stars as a Brooklyn teacher whose illicit drug taking is discovered by one of his pupils one night. However, the trick here is that director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote the film with Anna Boden) avoids any of the usual stereotypes involved with “teacher-pupil” movies and has crafted a wonderful portrait of two very different characters who become friends. Wisely side-stepping any emotional manipulation and instead portraying the rough edges of an unusual relationship it treats its characters as fully rounded humans. Gosling and co-star Shareeka Epps give two excellent central performances and in an age where even so called indie films seem to be following a text book, this carefully made drama is a real breath of fresh air.
Babel closed the festival last night and it is the third film in a trilogy from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga that started with Amores Perros and continued with 21 Grams. Like those films it involves three intercut stories, but here the canvas is much bigger, involving a sprawling narrative set across three different continents. A US tourist in Morrocco (Cate Blanchett) is accidentally shot whilst her husband (Brad Pitt) frantically tries to summon help; in the US a Mexican nanny is forced to take two children under her care over the border to attend her son’s wedding; and in Japan a deaf mute girl struggles to deal with her life. As you might expect from Inarritu, the stories deal with big themes and there is a lot of emotional anguish. But don’t let the fact that he has explored similar themes and ideas before put you off. This is still a highly accomplished piece of film making with some marvellous cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto and some superb editing from Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise.