This year’s BFI LFF was full of richly layered film-making that seemed poignantly relevant to current affairs, even though the story may have been set in another time and era. Perhaps we never learn our past mistakes?
One such example is writer-director Dee Rees’s Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, a beautifully rendered tale set in the Deep South about the impact of post-war America on the various communities. Not only does it explore racial tensions of the time, present-day unrest in Charlottesville, for example, makes us project latter-day opinions on the film’s events.
When two men – one white (Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan) and one black (Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson) – return home from World War II to work on a farm in Mississippi, they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to daily life after war. One belongs to a white family who own the land (the McAllans), and the other to family who, along with its descendants, works it (the Jacksons).
Nothing is taken for granted in Mudbound. No back story is left untold. Hence there are no plot holes to contend with. Rees fully fleshes out each character, as well as gives them an individual journey to embark on. Coupled with some fantastic casting/acting in Hedlund and Mitchell and Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan, this film offers a plethora of events and surface tensions to dissect and submerse in that parallel present-day tensions in America.
The storytelling is emotive in nature, as is to be expected. However, it is not drawn out for effect and exploitative in sentimentality. Events play out with real-time significance, with some of the most violent scenes very real indeed. In fact, Clarke’s McAllan brother, Henry, actually hits actor Hedlund for full effect in the brothers’ confrontation scene. The irony is there is also sensitivity invested in the characters and their story that Rees’ coaxes out on screen that is powerful in the mundane of moments.
Mudbound could fall into the clichéd Deep South screen story of racial divide but addresses all injustices using the most traumatic, humbling and leveling device: war.
As a female and a mother, the most sobering part of this film is at the very end. A list of nations rolls with the dates women got the vote. Some dates will profoundly shock. Others will not. Some women are still waiting. It’s the grand finale needed to drive the message home in a film that does not – and cannot – give you a happy ending. Too much was at stake and an awful lot lost.
Set in 1912-1913 at the height of the Suffragette movement, Suffragette follows the story of working-class Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), living with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son in London’s Bethnal Green, East End. Maud has worked long hours in a local laundry since she was a little girl, run by leering boss Mr Taylor (Geoff Bell) who uses every opportunity to abuse certain ‘favourites’ of his female staff.
One co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) has had enough and been secretly attending Suffragette meetings, held by local chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). When a battered Violet is unable to speak before ministers to put forward her case for women’s suffrage, Maud is persuaded to step in. Something changes at that moment as Maud realises the importance of what these women stand for. However, joining the campaign will mean ostracism and heartache for her, and her way of life drastically altered forever.
Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s drama is designed to be highly emotive and empowering. It’s hard not to get behind Maud on such an important issue – and it’s not necessarily about getting the vote, but liberating fifty per cent of the UK’s population at the time.
Even though none of the fight is pictured in a particularly favourable light, it’s not meant to be – except, perhaps, the romanticised and very brief outing of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst on a balcony then dashing into a waiting carriage while telling women everywhere to stand true and never give up. Gavron uses uncompromising shots to show the true brutality of the suffragettes verses authority. It may well be a period drama but it’s gritty like newsreel and quite unforgiving. It also highlights the stark reality of what happened if you got caught, with unpleasant reconstructions of prison suffering and torture.
In this respect, Mulligan’s weary, urchin-looking demeanour is perfectly cast and most harrowing when she losses that which is most dear to her. This point in the film – after following the escalation of previous sacrifices – will totally appal any parent at the tragic consequences reached when a mother and a wife is trying to bring about a better life, but not necessarily with the support of those closest to her.
The female cast is stellar and a draw in itself, but there is no posturing for screen time. In fact, the likes of Bonham Carter, for example, is very understated here. Romola Garai as middle-class Alice Haughton, a politician’s wife is equally downcast. Duff encapsulates all the physical scars of a suffragette of the time, including the emotional toll. Surrounding their characters is a greater menace of public shame and humiliation that puts a further gloom over the picture. However, it’s still Mulligan’s triumph as Maud as she grows from a wretched shell to a promising leader and independent.
Suffragette is a film on a mission to educate, and does so in an unambiguous fashion. It is deeply effecting and relevant with great performances that challenge perceptions. It may well beg for awards nods, but it is nevertheless a film that needed to be made – and even more significant is that it was by a female crew too.
Although the latest Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis, follows a tired-out character in the misfortunate Llewyn the musician, superbly played by actor-singer Oscar Isaac, the sumptuous-looking film is as fresh and Coen cool as any before. Mostly notably, it becomes one of the filmmakers’ most memorable with its musical renditions that pause the protagonist’s self-afflicted suffering for a moment. Through these, the film’s soul shines though as it fights for breath while its lead flounders at every turn. There is a remarkable melancholy at odds with a willful spirit that is all-consuming.
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is an aspiring solo singer navigating the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. However, luck is not on his side: he’s broke, has lost his singing partner, and seems set on screwing up every relationship and opportunity that comes his way. All he wants to do is be successful in the entertainment business or he will end up in the family shipping business.
Davis captivates us from the very start, so we can appreciate his talent, but subsequently does not channel that talent very well. He should be a loathsome character from his actions but there is a determination to stick by him to see if things transpire for the better. In the interim, he stubbornly stumbles from one disaster to another like one of life’s victims. As our damaged anti-hero we do empathise with his will to make the dream happen, as well as trying to keep current in a rapidly changing world.
Isaac plays socially obstructive Davis with such flagrant disregard but crippling neurosis that there are wonderful moments of irony and sarcasm. Just when we are losing the will with him, Davis recaptures our faith in his mission with a song, like being placed under a musical spell. Isaac has the impressive acting-singing talent to carry the film and Davis’s weary shoulders in the standout performance of his career to far.
The richly interwoven, subtle humour rises and filters away with every scenario. Like A Serious Man, this film is about life unraveling with signposts along the way. There is a running ‘joke’ about a cat in this that acts as such a prompt for the hapless lead, as much the star of the film as its human counterpart. One of the funniest and most brilliant moments is a road journey taken by Davis with a gregarious but equally pathetic character (John Goodman) and his silent ‘James Dean’ driver (Garrett Hedlund). Everything seems like a barrier to the real person, purely a disguise to get to where they need to go. Part of the Coen magic is figuring out the real character behind the mask.
Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake add the big-hitting credits, but the latter features far less than the former who is hilarious in an against-type role that sees the actress play an angry, shouty acquaintance. Mulligan swears like a trooper, taking out her character’s own frustrations on punchbag Davis while trying to scream some sense into him to wake up to reality.
Inside Llewyn Davis is another beautifully crafted Coen Brothers addition that leaves a mark long after watching as we are seduced by the score. The only frustration – apart from the lead character himself – is the narrative does not satisfactorily go anywhere or resolve things. Still, this could an element of Davis’s repetitive routine as he blindly tries to hang onto any fighting chance of creative success, something some of us can well relate to.
You can imagine that a literary adaptation set in the self-indulgent Roaring Twenties about a fateful love story that’s given the Baz Luhrmann touch would be as extravagant as ever. Think Moulin Rouge. Indeed the flamboyant director does not hold back with his version of The Great Gatsby and even tries to shoehorn in a modern-day urban music style from the likes of rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West into the equation. The result is a decadent, burlesque-style, 3D theatre piece with a pounding soundtrack and bursting with colour, but the emotive part of the novel is only saved by a mesmerising turn from its star, Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic Gatsby.
Would-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York in the spring of 1922 to follow his dream in a world of ‘anything goes’, the Roaring Twenties, where moonshine bars and loose morals prosper. Living next door on Long Island is a mysterious, party-throwing multi-millionaire called Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio ) that nobody ever sees but all attend his glitzy, wild parties every night. One day, Carraway receives an invitation to attend and his absorbed into this colourful world. However, Gatsby has a motive: to woo back a long lost love that is Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is unhappily married to her philandering, wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Carraway bears witness to this tragic love triangle and pens a tale of impossible love.
Like it or not, but such a tale is made for a Luhrmann touch, and what the director simply does is bring it to 21st Century consciousness for a broader cinematic audience – hence the music overhaul which feeds into the hedonistic style of the time, but also sits uncomfortably with it too, especially as there is a distinct lack of jazz that you come to expect. Having a lone trumpet player tickle the brass over the Big Apple skyline just doesn’t satisfy either. Still, the soulful sound of Jay-Z’s work does suit nicely in hindsight.
As for the visual spectacle, it’s Luhrmann all over: colour, glitter, soaring movements, an almost cartoonish urgency to it – especially as the Gatsby motor ploughs through the roads and dirt tracks like something alive and out of Roger Rabbit film. Luhrmann’s sumptuous theatrical world, shot as a whirlwind experience, mirrors the great love affair it illustrates. The director does turn things down several notches at times, using his trademark, ethereal quality of billowing curtains to make Daisy’s glamorous entrance to the screen – one of the most memorable shots of the film. The dark sense of the original novel from F. Scott Fitzgerald that suggests the seedier side of the fallout of the decadence is done away with on the surface, and only really gets released to highlight a sinister moment. Fans of the literary work will not find too much comparison but may be appeased by the magical charm exuded from DiCaprio.
The actor is dazzling in the role, balancing a swell of emotions at any single moment and a dark side to his nature that only comes to light in panto-style glances from his turret tower or when he loses his rag at Buchanan’s goading. DiCaprio breathes new fire into the character and charms the lot of us, as is necessary to feel his lonely, ill-advised plight and radiant sense of hope. It could be argued that Maguire’s is an uneventful performance, but his observational role merely allows DiCaprio as Gatsby to reflect and document the others actions in this torrid love story. It’s unfair to say that Maguire does little in this, though he does come across as less punchy than we would have liked such an important character to be at times.
Edgerton is brilliantly cast as the cad opposite Mulligan’s often insipid Daisy, a pathetic creature at times, rather than an emotionally torn heroine who Luhrmann’s camera seems to love but is allowed little else than to look alluring in an asexual way. Still, Mulligan’s casting is more apt than what was being considered – the too spiky Keira Knightley and too sultry Scarlett Johansson.
Sadly, Isla Fisher comes off the worst as the tragic Myrtle, barely making her mark before character’s demise. Fisher does kooky and energetic like no other actress, but her wings (and scenes) are clipped in a disappointing fashion, and even her demise is little more than momentary madness on her part to enhance the lavish spectacle of Gatsby’s gleaming yellow motor in slow-mo murderous fashion. In fact, Luhrmann’s production design often swallows up the characters in the story so that the human element fights for recognition. That said the costume design is magnificent as are some of the 3D effects.
Luhrmann is not trying to recreate the themes of the novel about great social change, however he does dip his hat to them, and certainly portrays the dizzy highs and crashing lows of the American Dream while we are hypnotised by another baby-blued-eyed performance from DiCaprio in a role that was made for him.
Steve McQueen said the reason his latest drama isn’t based in the UK is trying to get sex addicts over here to open up proved nigh impossible during the research into the film. Sex addiction is still a dirty, sleazy subject, with connotations of men in rain macs lurking precariously in dark corners waiting for favours that it’s hardly surprising. So, it’s a bold topic to tackle by McQueen, with an even bolder full frontal shot within the first 5-10 minutes of his muse and star ‘addict’ Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan – an ‘eye’ opener that makes no compromise for what lies ahead.
In New York City, successful executive Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life — which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction — is disrupted when his continually troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay. Her presence forces Brandon to confront his addiction as he begins to lose control.
McQueen has cultivated a disturbing and consistently dangerous environment to witness, not one necessarily of harm brought by another third party, but harm against oneself. His carefully ambivalent unravelling of Brandon’s existence is alarming as both character and viewer try to grasp the given situation, leaving you in no doubt as to the complexities and psychological terror that such an addiction can bring. In fact, McQueen presents almost ambiguous characters that invite interpretation as to the way they tick, or what could have happened in their past to explain present events, like lost souls with which we reflect our own opinions and prejudices off.
There is a distinct air of American Psycho sociopathy to the whole affair, in its coolness and calculated gain that ultimately requires an unexpected trigger for the story to change pace and evoke emotions, and hence, defence mechanisms. After Hunger, Fassbender gives a near faultless performance again at the hands of McQueen’s directing, and is utterly enthralling as Brandon as he deals with his demons, accumulating in a deeply felt outpouring of grief at the end that still leaves a question mark as to his imposed ‘road to recovery’. Mulligan as Sissy is beguiling in both a bittersweet and catastrophic sense, and after Drive, continues to demonstrate a compelling new angle for playing abused personalities with spirited determination, rather than the headstrong ones of past films.
McQueen’s Shame – aptly titled after one reoccurring word uttered by his sex addict interviewees – is harrowing without overtly trying to be, merely allowing its main players to act out their desires and face their consequences in an often claustrophobic environment, and without a sense of satisfactory closure. It also invites us to confront our own perceptions, and in doing so, interacts with them as to how the ending is subjectively taken. In this sense, it is the artist in McQueen engaging us in his filmic canvas of human suffering, without presuming to give us answers that others might arrogantly attempt to.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman for hire. After getting to know his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is later released from jail, Driver soon discovers that a contract has been put on him after one last heist with Standard to pay off a debt goes horribly wrong.
Drive is a juggernaut of emotion that tentatively and unknowingly builds up speed then knocks you for six with some uncompromising and ultra-violent scenes – much like the level of violence witnessed in Winding Refn’s acclaimed Bronson. Drive has its foot on full throttle without you knowing it as Winding Refn controls the pace with long deliberate pauses to allow his characters’ development and emotions to dominate the majority of the film. It’s complete with a powerhouse performance from Gosling, sexy and evoking car rides, and a cracking 80s-styled soundtrack that adds to any petrol head’s thrill at watching this.
Drive’s lead Gosling plays the mysterious Driver to perfection, adding to the bad boy appeal, with the actor putting on his best poker face, but still allowing us to warm to his character when there is very little dialogue to rely on, especially as Driver develops his relationship with Irene and shows his deep respect for garage owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Driver’s actions are gentle and thoughtful, done more out of protection than aggression, like some dark avenging angel, which is why when his back is against the wall, and the level of violent is so extreme, we’ve been broken in gently for big shocks that follow.
Mulligan as Irene is a surprise casting in such a supporting ‘gangster’s moll’ type of role. But she does bring an element of determination, respect and realism to young mother Irene, with her trademark defiance and absorbing vulnerability, in a role that could have been left wanting and without any worthy impact in the story, opposite the strong silent Driver. The only questionable pairing is Mulligan opposite Isaac as her jailbird husband that seems oddly matched and slightly unbelievable as the married couple.
Winding Refn’s Drive is an ode to a modern-day love tragedy, where violence goes hand in hand with burning passion, complete with oozing sex appeal and beautiful metal machines to ogle. Gosling captures the imagination in this like a latter-day Steve McQueen behind the wheel, and sets temperatures racing in one of the most intimately intense roles he’s played.
Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, is what film festivals and awards ceremonies were made for. Even though the film of the same name gracefully opened the 2010 BFI London Film Festival in October, delivering an example of understated, ethereal British elegance in its style and cinematography, it has been somewhat oddly overlooked at the major film awards of recent months. Could it be that the subtle sci-fi aspect doesn’t fully capture the imagination, or that Garland’s screenplay is too ‘safe’ in its unquestioning nature of some of the rather disturbing elements of his friend Ishiguro’s book?
That said Garland has been restraint in capturing the delicate nuances of the novel, keeping the sinister mystery of the three main protagonists’ fate sealed as far as possible, to allow us to feel hope until the very end that one of them will escape their ultimate destiny, especially as we are ‘guided’ by Kathy’s (Carey Mulligan) reassuring narration. Coupled with Mark Romanek’s patient direction, each scene seems to reveal something painstakingly profound, like watching a child or a visiting alien discover new things along its path to enlightenment, so you are always waiting for the penny to drop.
Wise Kathy, overly curious Ruth (Keira Knightley) and shy Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are three pupils of the prestigious Hailsham School for ‘special’ children. Hailsham initially feels quintessentially like a 1950s boarding establishment with strict health rules and tagged but privileged ‘inmates’. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is an alternative contemporary England, where certain humans are expendable, after a shocking truth is relieved to a class of 11 year-olds. But what the immediate authorities have in store for the youngsters on maturity – which is akin to state-licenced homicide, and we are not given any more insight into how the rest of the population feels about the medical atrocities happening in their name, doesn’t seem to particularly faze the chosen youth one bit. This is where this sci-fi drama that is being peddled more as a love triangle story differs from anything else seen on screen in the latter category, and could be conceived as slightly frustrating to those not in the know of the quietly provocative novel.
Even though the three friends discover the truth, are given some form of freedom in a ‘half-way’ house to come and go as they please, and don’t appear to have any authority watching over them, it’s a powerful tale of propaganda and conditioning that sees them blindly walking towards their inevitable demise that has any sane person asking; why? It is this question that drives you slightly mad, even though the characters’ naivety is so endearing that to scold them would be like scolding a small child, plus there is a sweetly amusing scene when they venture into their first cafe. Perhaps we are fooled by Ruth’s sporadic bursts of passion for life and newfound frustrations to do with matters of the heart that we are kept perplexed by what they all truly want? We certainly want to see them get what they really deserve: freedom of choice. But ironically, this is what they have, so why do they not do as the rest of us would in the situation, and escape for a chance of happiness? It’s a fascinating and torturous debate.
There are simplistic ‘red herrings’, including the fact that showing a flare for art demonstrates a soul worth saving – a deeper explanation of which is glossed over in the film, and that only love can save them in the end. Cruelly, this is merely a carrot with which to lead us into believing something can be saved from this morose tale that is crushingly tragic and pointless, apart from showcasing some remarkable performances, including Knightley as a dying woman and Garfield as a tormented man-child. Taken from a sci-fi perspective, it goes against the grain, in that anything to do with science is questioned, and anything corrupt is challenged and defeated. Therefore, thinking of it as a love tragedy of Shakespearean proportions seems easier on the mind, but still leaves obvious queries unanswered.
As with the novel the film-makers offer no final reprieve for cast and audience alike, suggesting death will become us all as we drifted towards our time and date. Never Let Me Go is churlish and unforgiving in love and life, and one of the most discreetly disturbing films you will see as both actors and their characters are left to face their expiration without any contention.
Wall Street, watch out: The Gekko is back, wiser, craggier-looking and more lethal, but with a soft spot that will always be his Achilles Heel. Wall Street creator Oliver Stone brings his anti-hero back to life and it’s thrilling to see the old dog sniffing around the green stuff again, whilst having an attack of the conscience and becoming more humane. That’s not to say the return of the 80s gambler, played by Michael Douglas, has lost his edge and isn’t up to his old tricks after prison – thankfully, far from it. He looks more determined than ever, with his stint in the can allowing him to home his ultimate revenge on his foes.
In fact Gekko is the single, most memorable and most exciting thing about this sequel. Apart from the lengthy boardroom wrangling and rapid-fire money jardon flying around that’s only of any real interest in its drawn-out form to those in the business or the know, try as hard as Stone might, the only scenes that really come alive are the ones with Douglas in them. The rest seem like ‘tension mounters’ for the latter, until ‘Gekko the villain’ creeps back on stage. Indeed the irony is this idol worshipping is part of the story, too, so the other characters must feel like Gekko ‘fluffers’, hanging on to his every move and waiting for their time to shine in his authority.
Nevertheless there are some solid performances from the likes of Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin and Carey Mulligan, but these are actually necessary to keep the stakes high and match the might of Douglas in one of his defining roles. LaBeouf plays young, smart and hungry very well as Gekko’s son-in-law-to-be and banking genius Jake Moore, but his puppy dog enthusiasm and wide-eyed surprise at being duped twice over starts to wear a little thin. Thank goodness for Brolin’s rogue banker character, Bretton James, who brings Jake down a peg or two, although James needed to be far nastier and more of a match for rival Gekko, to be honest, someone to really despised in villainous terms. This is sorely missing and could have magnified the on-screen electricity between the two old enemies, which we only get a taste of for a brief moment at a charity ball scene.
Mulligan playing Gekko’s estranged daughter results in the film’s more intriguing plotlines as Gekko uses her then realises he needs her to survive – and not for money’s sake. We actually get to see another side to Gekko that makes him a more rounded character, even if he still manages to keep us guessing as to his next move. That said the ending could be accused of being clichéd and slightly lazy. Tying up loose ends doesn’t always make for the most thrilling finale in such a film, even if it does go to appease us and put the world to rights.
Stone does what he does best and delivers a well-crafted and slick tale that adequately highlights the thrilling peaks and troughs of the global money market since the 80s, with the digital highway speeding money transfer and corruption along on its merry way. He has created a contemporary representation that does not seem too alien to reintroduce Gekko into. However, money may never sleep, but you would be forgiven for letting off a snore or two at some of the American-centric corporate scenarios, however valuable they might be in moving the narrative forward. Yes, greed is still bad – point taken. But Stone trying to introduce guilt about not thinking greener into the equation, using a ‘corporate banking selfishness’ storyline is both laughable and will fall on deaf ears. This film is about indulgence in the high life, which is the main reason to go and see it in the first place.