What to expect from London Film Festival 2018

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes rounds up the films that should be on your radar

10 October 2018 08:00

I always think that there are two ways of approaching a film festival. Either one uses it as an opportunity to see the big-name, much-hyped films ahead of their general release, or one focuses on discovering lesser-known gems, many of which might not find distribution. The annual BFI London Film Festival, which opens tonight with the international premiere of Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen’s new heist-thriller Widows – starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo – offers up plenty of the former. In part, it’s because London comes relatively late on the festival circuit: Cannes, Venice and Toronto have already nabbed a lot of the premieres and with them the first reviews. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, for example – which has been described as a wickedly funny 18th-Century-set romp – received plenty of glowing write-ups when it premiered at Venice at the end of August, so if you enjoyed the Greek director’s previous English-language films, The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), it’s well worth trying to see his latest now, three months ahead of general release. At its helm is the always-brilliant Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne, whose attention Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are desperately vying for.

So too Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (which is also set for general release in January 2019) is sure to be one of the festival’s hottest tickets. His follow-up to the much-acclaimed, Academy Award-winning Moonlight is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel; the story of a young black couple, Fonny and Tish, living in Harlem in the 1970s, whose relationship comes under pressure when Fonny is unjustly accused of rape. Jenkins has once again teamed up with James Laxton, the cinematographer responsible for the visually stunning Moonlight, and although DRUGSTORE CULTURE’s own Pamela Hutchinson, reporting from Toronto, admitted that it ‘lacked’ some of his previous film’s ‘elusive lustre,’ she called Jenkins’s representation of America’s history of a law and order system that cruelly victimises black men ‘an urgent polemic.’

It was another depiction of a broader community under attack, but seen through the microcosm of a single family unit that stood out for Hutchinson though: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a love letter to the woman who raised him, shot in black-and-white and set in Mexico City in 1970-71. Both it and the Coen Brothers’ latest – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a collection of tales from the Wild West – are Netflix original films screening at London that look to be getting theatrical releases, which would be a change to the studio’s previous policy of never opening a Netflix Original Movie before its availability on the site. While the likes of Netflix and Amazon are getting in on the big screen action like never before – critics are hailing Roma as a strong contender for a host of Oscars, Best Motion Picture included, which explains, at least in part, the significance of a theatrical release – on the flipside, this year’s festival also includes a special presentation of episodes 1 and 2 of Park Chan-wook’s forthcoming television adaptation of John Le Carré’s espionage thriller, The Little Drummer Girl. The six-part series, which is the South Korean director’s TV debut, has been co-produced by AMC in the US and the BBC here in the UK.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)

When it comes to British directorial talent, McQueen is joined by Terry Gilliam, Mike Leigh and Carol Morley. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Gilliam’s second attempt to adapt Cervantes’ famous picaresque novel, the first having resulted in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. While, after the success of Mr. Turner (2014), Leigh once again turns his hand to historical drama with Peterloo, his ensemble cast-led feature depicting the now infamous working-class uprising and its violent suppression in Manchester in 1819. Morley’s previous film, The Falling (2014), although perhaps not technically historical, was a 1960s period piece, but her latest work, Out of Blue, is a contemporary New Orleans-set detective thriller (adapted from Martin Amis’s Night Train) with all the trademarks of modern noir. The film’s lead, a recovering alcoholic police detective, is played by the formidable Patricia Clarkson, whose recent role in the TV adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2018) won her considerable applause. Fans of that show would also do well to seek out Widows, since the script – which is a re-working of Lynda La Plante’s then groundbreaking original 1980s television series – has been co-written by Flynn and McQueen.

According to the festival’s Artistic Director, Tricia Tuttle, 38 per cent of this year’s programme is the work of female directors, which is a significant increase on last year’s less impressive 24 per cent. That both big name male directors McQueen and Lanthimos are bringing us obviously female-led features is also notable. Joining them are Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl [2015]) with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her biopic of the infamous literary forger Lee Israel, played by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy; and Matthew Heineman with Private War, his adaptation of Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article ‘Marie Colvin’s Private War’, which stars Rosamund Pike as the intrepid war correspondent who was killed in 2012 whilst reporting from Syria. Jessie Buckley, who shone in last year’s Beast (Michael Pearce), takes the lead in Wild Rose, Tom Harper’s Glasgow-set story about a young woman balancing her dreams of becoming a country music star with the demands of motherhood. Joy Alphonsus wows with her portrayal of a steadfast sex worker trying to pay off her debt in Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, a bleak but powerful story of Nigerian women trafficked in Europe. And, while early reviews of Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher – the tale of an educator who becomes obsessed with a five-year old prodigy – have suggested that the story itself is a bit of a disappointment, Maggie Gyllenhaal has received considerable acclaim for her titular performance.

In fact, from a first glance at this year’s programme, the host of female-centric narratives jumped out at me. George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give brings us his adaptation of Angie Thomas’s bestselling Black Lives Matter-inspired young adult novel about a teenager who witnesses the fatal police shooting of her childhood friend. So too a sprinkling of overtly feminist features across genres isn’t at all surprising. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which has been described as a feminist update of Dario Argento’s horror classic, has frustrated as many early viewers as it has impressed. Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton might be enough to tempt some, especially fans of A Bigger Splash (2015) which last saw the two actors team up with Guadagnino, but those expecting the drowsy delights of Call Me By Your Name (2017) will most likely find themselves out of their comfort zone.

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

Violence and gore is also set to abound in Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, a contemporary-set reboot of the Salem Witch Trials that owes a debt of thanks to the likes of Heathers (1988). So too in Lizzie, which stars Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, as director Craig William Macneill turns a queer lens on the infamous Lizzie Borden murders, reconfiguring the story to view his titular heroine not as axe-wielding monster, but as a victim of the patriarchy. Subversion is also the name of the game in the multimedia artist Rachel Maclean’s Make Me Up, a work of feminist science fiction that attempts to deconstruct art history’s myth of feminine beauty. While at the other end of the spectrum, Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami’s The Breaker Upperers – which also features the co-writers/directors as the film’s leads – brings us the distinctive Antipodean humour of Taika Waititi (who is the film’s executive producer) but via the female gaze.

Meanwhile, both Naziha Arebi and Eva Husson turn to real-life stories of female strength and fortitude as inspiration for their films, the former with the self-shot documentary Freedom Fields, which charts six years of Libya’s nascent women’s football team, and the latter with Girls of the Sun (Les Filles du Soleil), a tribute to female Kurdish fighters, starring Golshifteh Farahani. There’s also Irene Lusztig’s fascinating sounding documentary, Yours in Sisterhood, in which she has women across America give voice to previously unpublished letters sent by readers in the 1970s to Ms. – the country’s first mainstream feminist magazine – before then asking them to recount their own personal experiences relating to the topic on the page in front of them.

Gender comes under the microscope in Ali Abassi’s oddly touching yet equally hackle-raising Border (Gräns). Based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the Right One In, it’s the wild and weird story of an outsider named Tina, who works as a customs guard in Sweden. Meanwhile, a transgender teenager dreams of becoming a ballet dancer in Girl, Lukas Dhont’s tenderly observed coming-of-age story, that won the Queer Palm earlier this year at Cannes Film Festival. Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki also deserves a mention here too. Her story of forbidden love between two young women in Nairobi was banned in Kenya – where gay sex is still a punishable offence – even before the film premiered at Cannes back in May. Let’s not forget the men, though: in particular, I want to draw attention to John Butler’s Papi Chulo, a pitch-perfect tragicomic portrait of male loneliness and emotional reticence, in which a gay weatherman in LA (beautifully played by Matt Bomer) turns to a straight migrant worker (the radiantly perpetually bemused Alejandro Patiño) for companionship. Most likely all too easily overlooked, stories about kindness and gentleness are few and far between.

Both are things we could all do with a bit more of right now, as Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reminds us. Oscar-winning filmmaker Neville celebrates Fred Rogers, the American children’s television presenter and host of the long-running Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001), a show that taught its young viewers empathy, compassion and love. Other documentaries I have my eye on are Michael Moore’s study of Donald Trump, Fahrenheit 11/9, which surely needs no elaboration; Marouan Omara’s Dream Away, which follows hotel staff in the now all but deserted Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm El Sheikh reflecting on their lives; What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, Roberto Minervini’s portrait of a Louisiana community after an unarmed, 37-year-old African American resident named Alton Sterling was shot dead by police in 2016; and Tommy Avallone’s exploration of the legends surrounding one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man.

With over two hundred films on offer over the course of the twelve-day festival, I’ve only scratched the surface here. Check back in with us over the course of the next two weeks to find out which works piqued my and other DRUGSTORE CULTURE writers’ interests, as we’ll be reviewing what we’ve seen, recommending our top picks, as well as warning you about those that aren’t worth your time.