London Film Festival: Cinematic Substance

Despite growing in size and glamour over the last few years, the London Film Festival is sure to provide substance before style. The release of its programme is awaited by independent film industry members and art-house film lovers alike, and its selection this year has proven British and world film is going from strength to strength. The effect of Brexit on the openness of the UK film sector, racial diversity and gender equality in the industry remain hot topics that drew keen discussion and engagement at this year’s festival, while the 74 countries being represented across 380 feature films, short films, animations and documentaries proved there was much to be proud and excited in the future of cinema.

Running from 5 – 16 October, the 2016 London Film Festival opened with British director Amma Asante’ new drama A United Kingdom. Starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, this true 1940’s love story between a Botswanan royal and a London office girl marks Asante as the first black female director to open the festival. Indeed, this year’s festival is drawing special attention to black filmmakers and actors with the BFI’s Black Star symposium, which sees speakers like Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and Selma director Ava DuVernay address the obstacles still faced in securing funding, colour-blind casting and more BAME talent. Seventeen films from nine Middle Eastern countries are also in the programme; a First Feature strand for new international filmmaking talent; and a BFI Flare Special Presentation preview of a London LGBT Film FestivaI pick. If it’s diversity the world film industry is after, it made its pledge in London this year.

Our five picks from the programme include documentary and film, a variety of subjects and talented creators sure to garner acclaim in the upcoming awards season.

 Queen of Katwe (Dir. Mira Nair)

The latest offering from acclaimed director Mira Nair is a heartwarming tale inspired by a true story. Queen of Katwe plays it safe on its inspiring source material, being a Disney production, but Nair’s cinematic eye and close interest in human relationships brings intimacy, warmth and greater depth in its subtle critique of gender expectations and socio-economic divides. Fourteen-year-old Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who wins over with her playfulness and resilience) lives in rural Uganda, helping her single mother and siblings sell corn in the market.

When she sneaks up on a chess lesson for slum children (taught by David Oyelowo’s Robert Katende, a well-meaning but out-of-work chess coach) she is hooked. As the chess kids triumph against a rival posh boarding school in Kampala, they go on to experience heartwarming firsts – a plane ride to Sudan, snow in Moscow – and gain the love and pride of the slums. Showing a natural flair for the strategy of the game, Phiona is their rising star, and Coach is determined to see her compete at the level she deserves. Caught between her desire for a bigger life of tournament victories, and the poverty of her family situation, Phiona must learn to believe she belongs amongst the best, whilst remaining humble and connected to her mother and community.

A feel-good movie and tribute to mother-daughter love, Queen of Katwe’s strengths are Lupita Nyong’o’s strong and emotive portrayal of Phiona’s fiercely self-sufficient and protective mother Harriet; Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s dynamic visuals; and an irresistible soundtrack of contemporary Afropop.

The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

In this darkly sensual tale of 1930s-era colonial Korea and Japan, Park Chan-wook, celebrated director of Oldboy and Stoker, pulls out all the stops in terms of visual artistry. Adapting Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set romantic thriller “Fingersmith” to this new setting and culture has resulted in an original story that still retains the book’s triptych structure and central relationships. Sook-Hee is an orphan and a con-woman who joins forces with a fellow criminal, Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha). She is hired to be a wealthy heiress’s handmaiden at an isolated countryside estate, gaining her confidence and leading her into a love affair with the Count. After the Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and the Count marry, the Count will have Hideko thrown into a madhouse and divide up her fortune amongst himself and Sook-Hee. Her plans are soon complicated by the irresistable draw the two women feel towards one another. The film’s twists and turns take us beyond this initial set-up, and much of its effect requires knowing as little possible about the specifics of the plot beforehand. The film will divide viewers who may find the titillating, fetishistic and often drawn-out sex scene at odds with moments where Park seems to be criticising the voyeurism of the male gaze. But the director’s masterful eye for lavish mise-en-scène, erotic aesthetics and the minutiae of gesture and facial expression are given free reign in this dense, tangled and at times violent, narrative.

American Honey (Dir. Andrea Arnold)

Dreadlocks, motels, open roads, money, drugs, youth: led by a hypnotising female lead in Sasha Lane, director Andrea Arnold’s paean to the American road movie takes the genre and makes it her own. Arnold’s Red Road, Fish Tank, and Wuthering Heights could be considered masterpieces of a kind of contemporary and female-centric social realism, and American Honey is a veritable addition to this. A drama of aimless youth and open roads, its a modern take on Jack kerouac’s On the Road; this time, the kids have no grand purpose or self-discovery in mind, but simply seek enough cash to see them to the next town, the next party, the next high. A group of twentysomethings drive around mid-West America in a van selling magazines; their manager Krystal (a fierce Riley Keough in a Confederate-flag bikini top) gets a big slice and checks them into a different low-rent motel every night; they party, fall in love, hustle. Most are runaways and troublemakers, leaving home or having no home to speak of to begin with. Shia LaBoeuf plays Jake, boyfriend to Krystal, who recruits 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) – together, the two sell well, but Jake grows infatuated with Star’s impulsiveness, love of hedonism, naïveté and vulnerability. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan has captured a magical style where sunsets, bonfires, alcohol-fuelled arguments and neon gas-station signage are all treated as opportunities to marvel in light and shadow. Like its characters’ lives, the long film has no particular arc, growth or resolution – it its space and aesthetic style, however, it reminds us why Arnold is a British film-maker on the rise.

Certain Women (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Scooping Best Film at the London Film Festival, Certain Women is a testament to the enduring power of no frills human stories on screen. The themes, gravitas and subtle twists in Kelly Reichardt’s films is always a pleasure to watch unfold – she last surprised viewers with the quietly shocking story about a group of young eco-terrorists in “Night Moves.” Certain Women is similarly layered with brooding vistas and complex female characters, but takes place in the American heartland. Working from short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt gives us fragile feelings amongst the hard Western life of chores, gender traditions, and labour.

Three separate stories of three different women who share a common thread of longing for communication, connection, and facing self-doubt. Small-town lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is trying to keep her distance yet retain her empathy for a helpless, violent client (Jared Harris), while grappling with her own loneliness. Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) feels she has been left outside her own family, with her husband (James Le Gros) and daughter (Sara Rodier) much closer than she is to them. As they build a new house in the countryside, they try to cling onto a sense of permanence and togetherness. Kristen Stewart plays Beth Travis, a young lawyer teaching a night class at a rural school.

Self-effacing, mousy yet broodingly magnetic, she is pursued by her student, a young ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone), in a lesbian love affair that pushes small-town prejudices to the surface. The subtlety of the film makes it deserving of Best Film – but this restraint also leaves us wanting more about these intriguing characters.

Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford)

Former Gucci mastermind turned writer-director Tom Ford’s eye for colour, composition, texture and character study was cemented in his film A Single Man starring Colin Firth. In Nocturnal Animals, we find Amy Adams show her versatility in a very different role from her other appearance in the LFF programme in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Ford adapted the screenplay from late American novelist Austin Wright’s 1993 book Tony and Susan. Susan is a glamorous gallery director in the materialistic and ego-saturated LA contemporary art scene, but racked with unhappiness. Her handsome, philandering second husband Walker (Armie Hammer) is a broker, and their professional success has bought them a cold steel, stone and glass 60’s mansion in the LA hills. The novel is about the experience of reading and accessing another person’s thoughts, feelings and experience, and how our choices have consequences for others around us.

We witness Susan’s guilt when a manuscript turns up from her first husband from 20 years ago (Jake Gyllenhaal), with a harrowing plot that slowly becomes real in her head. Raw performances, the harsh lawlessness of the West and the  are balanced with Ford’s Edward Hopper-like compositions of high society, privilege, beauty and melancholy. Adams’ performance is elegant and nuanced, but Ford’s casting of all roles shows his meticulous attention and appreciation of talent. You can forgive him for his vision of a 60’s LA consisting solely of people blessed with chiseled looks; it all harmonises with his vision of old cinematic glamour, whilst digging deep into contemporary tensions with its moments of class vengeance and power relations.

Sarah Jilani

1. Still from American Honey. Courtesy of LFF and Andrea Arnold.