For three weeks, the BFI’s 63rd London Film Festival took place across multiple cinemas in the city, presenting some of the most exciting work at the forefront of film culture. After the build-up of various films shown and celebrated at previous festivals, including Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire at Cannes and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story at Toronto International Film Festival, it was with genuine fervour and interest that individuals from all areas of the film industry came together to watch and experience cinema.
Queuing for many of the morning press screenings at 7am somehow added to the enjoyment of the experience, as the city and Leicester Square were quiet still, themselves just waking up. But equally, going alone to these screenings allowed for many conversations to strike up with other cinema lovers. Above all else, these conversations revealed a universal sentiment—cinema will simply never get boring.
Image: The Irishman, dir. by Martin Scorsese (Allociné.fr)
For me, the festival began with Blackbird, directed by Roger Michell, with a stellar cast including Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska. Unfortunately, though, it fell into the dangerously dull depths of predictability. Apart from some lightly entertaining performances from Sarandon and Rainn Wilson—who comes across as a happier version of The Office's Dwight, I couldn’t help the film would break the fourth wall at any given point. Particularly, the dialogue and plot are both equally as flat as each other, with the setting itself being as bland and unnecessarily upper-class. If the point here was to underline that pain knows no bounds, it was badly made.
Next on my viewing schedule was Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. This was definitely quite the experience at 8 in the morning, but was one that visually marked me, and it only got better with hindsight and time to settle. This film caused many polar opposite opinions, and with reason; it is about everything and nothing, depending from which angle you choose to look at it. It is at once a story about spirituality and purpose, and the story of the fragility of one’s sanity and sense of reality. Eggers has made his way to becoming one of the most exciting and fresh voices of contemporary horror, and Pattinson yet again adds to his quickly growing qualitative repertoire as a truly talented artist. And of course, Dafoe as an old suspicious sailor is the pièce de résistance that hooks you into seeing this film in the first place if nothing else.
Receiving widely positive reviews from Sundance in January 2019, Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy was my next hugely anticipated screening. Taking place early in the morning, this made for a much more visceral viewing experience due to its delicate emotional rawness. Child actor Noah Jupe gave a stunning, sincere performance as young Otis, a character based on Shia himself. The central focus of the film is Otis’ relationship with his awkward, outcast, emotionally abusive father (beautifully played by LaBeouf, which brings the film’s emotional impact to a whole new level). Honey Boy is a deeply intimate act for LaBeouf, as by exposing his wounds he is ultimately attempting to heal himself and begin a process of forgiveness. Lucas Hedges may be slightly type-cast as the emotionally traumatised teenager, but that is because he is a master of the nuances that kind of performance involves. Overall, Honey Boy is an essential story that belongs on screens and that we are lucky to have apart of our cultural arsenal.
To continue with the theme of emotionally destroying cinema, the screening of Marriage Story also took place at 8am the next day. Noah Baumbach’s latest feature is a beautifully crafted work of art, based on the timeless subject of marriage, love, and the aftermath of when romantic love ends. In both films, the viewer is pulled into the character development of the protagonists, through their mannerisms, mistakes and mood swings. Furthermore, realistically depicting love-induced pain is an intimate act that takes skilful storytelling and acting. Many of us have grown up consuming it and believing on some level that what we are seeing is art imitating life, to varying degrees. On the contrary, Marriage Story deals with the pain of an ending nobody wanted. As viewers, it is as enjoyable as it is therapeutic to see the behaviours and reactions of these characters exposed, which are images and notions that stay with us when confronted with similar emotions or situations. We want and crave films like this one, as much as the ones that are designed to feed into our hopelessly romantic and gullible imaginings of love, in order to balance our perception of life. Like any art doing its job, film stays with us, and like good poetry, we may select to use certain messages from our cabinet of films as medicine or antidote to heal our own specific realities.
Image: Marriage Story, dir. by Noah Baumbach (Allociné.fr)
A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life has made its way around the world and across many prestigious film festivals, creating quite a stir in its wake. Morality, conscience and purpose are the through-line themes of this three-hour long film, and I for one felt each hour go by at a glacial pace. The essence of the story is fascinating and the reality of it surpasses the word 'chilling' by a landslide. It is based on the life of Austrian Franz Jägerstätter, who openly objected to fighting for (and therefore supporting) the Third Reich, and was sentenced to death at the age of thirty-six. August Diehl’s interpretation of Franz was the absolute highlight of the film. Yet, the execution of the film did not fulfil its clearly intended purpose of spiritual awakening, due to an uneven pace that often unnecessarily dragged. Throughout the film, Franz is constantly berated and reminded that he is merely a drop in the ocean, a needle in the haystack, and that ultimately his act of self-sacrifice will go unnoticed on the pages of history, making a difference to no one apart from the eternal suffering of his family after his death. The film thus left me with questions about humanity and man’s conscience, which we have yet to answer completely. If nothing else, A Hidden Life brought an essential, human story to life and raised fascinating philosophical questions, and for that it is deserving of its place at the forefront of film culture and discussion.
The final film I had the chance to see was Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. This could be said every year, but 2019 has been a truly exciting year for film, with cult filmmakers such as Tarantino and Scorsese, looking back at their career and legacy, and putting all their energy into carefully crafting stories that are ultimately about getting older. Whereas Tarantino’s film was an ode to the West Coast, Scorsese’s lens is forever at its best on the East Cost, amongst the streets of New York. The Irishman in question is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), lifetime friend to both the Bufalino crime family (of which Joe Pesci plays Russell Bufalino) and to labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (enacted wonderfully by Al Pacino). The film begins with an ageing Frank recalling how it all started, and proceeds with a series of flashback-style storytelling of his experience of being close to two of the most influential men in 20th century America. Ray Romano's performance as Jimmy Hoffa's lawyer, Bill Bufalino, comes as a delightful surprise and a burst of true "New Yorker" energy. A three and a half hour runtime could have the potential to run out of steam, but once you get into the pace of the film, it is a very clever use of time and plays with memory very well. Scorsese is a filmmaker at the top of his game, and this film is the product of an ongoing artistic collaboration and personal understanding between himself and the actors.
London Film Festival 2019 was a myriad of stories about human nature, from the way we process hurt and pain to the road to forgiveness, apathy and acceptance. This year’s festival left me feeling more than ever that we are forever in need of films that share and facilitate understanding of suffering and pain in our lives, and help us find meaning to it all somewhere down the line.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor