London 2019

On Film / The Daily — Oct 2, 2019
Dev Patel in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, a comedic update to the Dickens classic, premiered in Toronto last month and opens the BFI London Film Festival tonight. Like Toronto, the LFF is both a summing up of what the programmers deem to be the best work of the year so far and a revving up for the long season of awards and list-making ahead. Unlike TIFF or just about any other festival, though, London’s 229 features are divided into sections by theme rather than genre or budget. Strands bear such labels as Love, Dare, Thrill, Journey, or Debate. But there are also four competitions—official, first feature, documentary, and short films—and plenty of galas.

With a cast led by Dev Patel and including Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, and Peter Capaldi, David Copperfield is most definitely a gala presentation. “Undaunted by an epically episodic narrative that strains credulity at every turn, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell cannily frame the proceedings as the creative, tragicomic memoirs of the eponymous artist-in-waiting, an act of prodigious and inspired recollection,” writes Tom Charity in one of the over fifty—and counting—reviews of films in this year’s program from Sight & Sound.


Iannucci also “employs some unexpected stylistic touches and adds racial diversity to his color-blind cast,” notes the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee, “but stops short of anything that would drastically modernize the text. Instead, he finds a way of transposing his rhythm on to the source material, creating the sort of well-choreographed, well-timed group comedy that makes his narrative work so distinctive. It’s a deceptively delicate art of his, one that comes to life with sharp dialogue and canny direction.” In his television work (The Thick of It and Veep) and his features (In the Loop and The Death of Stalin), Iannucci “has assumed the role of a we’re-all-fucked pessimist, albeit of a blisteringly funny sort,” writes Keith Uhlich for Slant. “Though it doesn’t lack spiky edges, David Copperfield is the first time Iannucci revels, unexpectedly, in optimism.”


While LFF artistic director Tricia Tuttle tells Variety’s Leo Barraclough that “we don’t program to quotas,” it’s worth noting that four of the ten films in the official competition are directed by women. Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female director, made the first feature ever to be shot in the country with Wadjda in 2012. In her new film, The Perfect Candidate, a young female doctor decides to run for a seat on the local council, and of course, finds herself up against a political system dominated by men. Leonardo Goi, dispatching to the Notebook from Toronto, noted that “there are moments when the plot seems to hit auto-pilot mode, ticking all the predictable boxes, down to the rhetoric Maryam embraces in her pleas for votes.” But the film “does retain a lively, combative tone throughout, ambling away from polemics and interpolating a Sisyphean, infuriating struggle with moments of delicate homely candor.”


With Saint Maud, the story of a young nurse, Maud (Morfydd Clark), caring for a terminally ill dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), writer-director Rose Glass “has fashioned a sober, viciously disciplined film about a particular madness—or extreme religious fervor, if you want to be polite about it—that cuts to the core of fanaticism and its dangers, while taking pains to place its audience inside the believer’s head,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Skirting easy cynicism to view fire, brimstone, and occasional grace through Maud’s awestruck eyes, this is finally as much a sympathetic character study, a mental heath mind-map, as it is any kind of chiller. Whatever the case, it’s one hell of a debut for Rose Glass, who arrives to features fully formed, as elegantly poised between hardness and delicacy as her name.” In Sight & Sound, Ela Bittencourt argues that Glass “borrows a page from psychoanalysis by portraying zealous spirituality as psychosomatic, but gives neither the religious dogma nor medicine a final say.”


The main attraction in the Cult strand will likely be The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’s second feature after The Witch (2015). We’ve already noted that the 1890s-set tale of two salty seamen starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson caused quite a splash when it premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight program in Cannes, but let’s mention here that Bilge Ebiri has recently conducted a fine interview with Eggers for Vulture.

Elsewhere in the program, because it stars Nicolas Cage, Color Out of Space, the first feature Richard Stanley has directed in nearly twenty-five years, should also be a big draw. Reviewing this adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story about an alien invasion for Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman finds that Stanley “clearly relishes the opportunity to visualize various strange and grotesque encounters, and the judicious mix of CGI and ’80s-era Carpenter-style practical effects (including a writhing, many-headed mutation straight out of The Thing) works splendidly. What’s less assured is the tone, which could generously be described as ‘elastic’—with humor and horror very much existing on the same continuum—but strikes one more precisely as desperate, unable to commit to either full-on gross-out comedy or apocalyptic melancholy.”


Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature, Two of Us, will be screening in the Love strand. Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier play neighbors who have secretly been lovers for decades, and in his dispatch to Film Comment from Toronto, Michael Koresky found that “especially with the invaluable Sukowa—perhaps best remembered by many for her work with Fassbinder in Berlin Alexanderplatz and Lola—as its central figure of driven romantic desperation, Two of Us consistently evokes an earlier era of melodrama, yet miraculously without any distancing aesthetic mannerisms or metatextual self-consciousness. This is simply a shot-from-the-heart work of emotional earnestness, shot in burnished autumnal colors and attuned to the minutest expressive navigations of its two wonderful leads, and it had me on the verge of weeping multiple times.”


The Cordillera of Dreams, a highlight of the Journey strand, completes documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s sublime trilogy on Chile’s violent and tragic history. Guzmán, internationally renowned for The Battle of Chile, the three-part chronicle of the election and subsequent overthrow of Salvador Allende, was forced to leave the country after his arrest in 1973 and made Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015), as he says, “from afar.” The Cordillera of Dreams, a “stirring meditation on the colossal, gelid Andes range,” as Fernando F. Croce calls it in the Notebook, “is at once monumental and intimate, a fresco and a remembrance . . . Shot as voluptuously as in a 1920s German bergfilm (the camera feasts on imposing ice, volcanic rock and angular crevasses), the peaks also appear as commoditized national icons, shrunk down to the logo on a matchbox. Such contradictions are ingrained in the film’s very title, in the mix of mighty materiality and oneiric strangeness.”


Codirectors Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong have collaborated with cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung and sonic artist Ernst Karel on Krabi, 2562, a special presentation in the Experimenta program. The film opens with the disappearance of a movie location scout in Krabi, a town on southern Thailand’s west coast, and then wanders off to ancient caves, glorious beaches, and abandoned movie theaters. Writing for Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler argues that this is very much Suwichakornpong’s film, “unmistakably the third part of what can be viewed as a trilogy on the struggles of Thai filmmakers over the past decade” that began with Mundane History (2009) and By the Time It Gets Dark (2016). “With each work,” writes Koehler, “the interwoven layers of storytelling grow more complex, time signatures slip and shift, a Buddhist reality explodes in the viewer’s sensibilities, and the quiet tone of the surface belies a puckish humor and anarchistic taste.”


Treasures, the LFF’s repertory strand, will host the world premiere of the new restoration of George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter (1923), a film long believed to have been lost, placed high on the BFI’s list of “most wanted” titles, and rediscovered in the Netherlands in 2014. The film stars Betty Balfour, once dubbed “Britain’s Queen of Happiness,” as a cheery chorus girl with big dreams. Balfour, who later appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Champagne (1928), has an on-screen presence that is “as magnetic as it is charming,” writes Pamela Hutchinson in the Guardian. “She is constantly in motion, eyes twinkling and limbs snapping: a gamine with get-up-and-go. In this rags-to-riches story, she plays in the working-class mode for which she was most famous, but when she bursts out of that slum to become a star, she can indulge in the elegant 1920s glamour that suited her so well.”

Writing for Sight & Sound, Bryony Dixon notes that Balfour’s facial expressions are “paced precisely to be read and understood with complete clarity—happy, sad, mischievous, furious, compassionate: a one-woman emoji generator and, of course, a film director’s dream. With a bright open face, big eyes, and blonde curls, she is a perfect package, thoroughly English, utterly modern.” The screening will be accompanied live by acclaimed jazz composer and pianist Meg Morley.

These notes merely scratch the surface of the LFF’s full 2019 program, of course, so for more recommendations, turn to Time Out or to the programmers themselves. Little White Lies has spoken with thirteen of them about some of their favorite selections.

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