Northern lights

The Edinburgh International Film Festival, whose 12-day run finishes this weekend, is beset with problems and doing its best to overcome them. It has been hit hard by the British government’s decision to abolish the UK Film Council, which has stripped the festival of a large source of funding. One casualty of this development is the Michael Powell Award for best new British feature film, a 20-year-old prize that had become central to Edinburgh’s reputation.

But the festival’s organisers created some difficulties on their own when they moved the festival, which is now in its 65th year, to June from its traditional slot in August. The intended effect of this change, introduced in 2008 by the former director Hannah McGill, was to liberate the EIFF from the other festivals that take place in Edinburgh during August, but the result has been to put it in their shadow. The new proximity to Cannes, for example, prevents it from picking up exciting films that weren’t ready in time for that festival, while allowing films that are completed over the summer to be shown at Venice, Sundance and New York.

In these difficult times, the festival would benefit from a more reassuring spokesman than its newly appointed director James Mullighan, who has been arguing, none too persuasively, for increased emphasis on symposia and short films, among other things. “There are now more than 2,000 film festivals globally,” Mullighan writes in the introduction to this year’s programme, “and we’re neither able nor willing to compete with the red carpets and star wattage of Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice.”

Well, if you recognise that you’re not able to do something, then there is no virtue in being unwilling to try; “red carpets and star wattage” looks suspiciously like a snooty euphemism for “films that people are excited about”. Mullighan goes out of his way to emphasise Edinburgh’s tradition as “the city of Enlightenment”, which is reflected, he claims, in the festival’s line-up of “conversations, debates, experiments, parties and gags”. It is true that these could be areas in which EIFF might excel but there is no getting around the fact that people are unlikely to attend film festivals for parties, or even gags.

There have been plenty of good films showing this year, though many of them are hand-me-downs from other festivals. It might be said that this doesn’t matter as long as the films are good, but the number of world premieres functions as a useful barometer of a festival’s health, vitality and esteem. This year, the festival programme has shrunk a good deal but there were still a respectable six world premieres.

The noisiest of these was the screening of Page Eight, a David-and-Goliath conspiracy thriller of a somewhat familiar kind. One of the results of the funding cuts has been the end of gala events; nevertheless the screening of Page Eight was held in the vast Edinburgh Festival Theatre and preceded by an onstage introduction by David Hare, the film’s writer-director, and Bill Nighy, its leading man.

In short, even without a red carpet, it felt like a big deal, although the film itself was a dud. Nighy plays Johnny Worricker, an MI5 officer nearing retirement who becomes embroiled – inevitably – in a noble but dangerous plot. After the death of his best friend and boss (Michael Gambon), Worricker seeks to honour his legacy by blowing the whistle on the prime minister’s collusion with, or countenancing of, American torture. Hare believes that the film breaks new ground in its depiction of the impact that modern technology has had on espionage. He obviously doesn’t get to the multiplex much.

In any case, this element is essentially confined to Nighy tapping away on a BlackBerry. The film’s portrait of 21st-century London doesn’t go much beyond a few references to social media, some back-and-forth about freedom versus security, and a lame joke about conceptual art that prompted hearty theatre-audience laughter.

At times the film resembles The Bourne Identity as re-written by Harold Pinter. “I thought that would be your next question,” Gambon’s character says at one point. “It is,” replies the no-nonsense female home secretary. “I thought it would be,” he replies. Between Gambon and Nighy, there’s no scenery left, though there’s plenty of arch knowingness. The big-name director and the starry cast (which includes Rachel Weisz) secured the grand opening but it’s a lacklustre film, to say the least.

The festival organisers have made the strange decision to do away with the closing-night film, even though there have been plenty of films more distinguished than The Guard, the Irish crime caper – diverting but nothing more – that opened the festival. There has been accomplished work from Chile (Post Mortem, set during the 1973 coup), Denmark (The Truth About Men, a mid-life crisis comedy), France (On the Shore, about a depressed, fantasising policeman), and the US (Gaby Dellal’s ensemble drama Angels Crest, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s forlorn directorial debut Jack Goes Boating).

There has also been a good range of fact-based films, an Edinburgh strength long before the recent documentary boom. Life in Movement, a nuanced and heart-wrenching portrait of the Australian choreographer Tanja Liedtke, was a real high point. Steven Silver’s The Bang Bang Club isn’t a documentary but it is based on the true story of the white photographers who documented the civil chaos in early 1990s South Africa. Even at its most conventional, it possesses a kind of ragged intensity and the tale it tells is a good one.

Strikingly, about a fifth of the films on offer have been concerned with children coming of age or the world coming to an end – with adolescence or apocalypse. The screening of Niall MacCormick’s teen drama Albatross, another world premiere, was preceded by more buzz than this modest film could live up to; it has an amiable performance, though, from Jessica Brown-Findlay as a struggling writer and thriving troublemaker. And there were also reports on youth progress and stasis from Iceland (the pedestrian Jitters) and South Korea (the intense and stirring Bleak Night, another high point).

Of the seemingly countless films about the end of days, the most amusing was Phase Seven, an Argentine horror comedy in which a virus causes civil strife in an apartment building; the most high-profile was David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, which, though not a disaster, failed to make the most of a juicy premise (a global pandemic causes the successive loss of the senses).

And the best, by far, was Béla Tarr’s Turin Horse (the winner of the Silver Bear in Berlin), which portrays six dowdy days in the life – bleak and getting bleaker – of the man whose horse-whipping sent Friedrich Nietzsche into a frenzy from which he never recovered. It may seem that a mostly wordless film in which the characters are repeatedly shown eating (without cutlery) a steaming jacket potato (without tuna mayo) would have little to offer, but the Hungarian director, making what he has said is his final film, seems to have hypnotic imagery on endless tap.

When I first attended the Edinburgh film festival in 1998, it was a confident and boisterous affair – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had its world premiere, John Maybury’s Francis Bacon film, Love is the Devil, won the Michael Powell Award, Scum director Alan Clarke was the subject of the retrospective, Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe was the surprise film. In that year, the director Lizzie Franke had no need to be defensive or apologetic.

Much has changed since then, and James Mullighan is right to emphasise alternative possibilities – “happenings, poesy and interruptions” – for the festival’s future, given that so many of its erstwhile strengths relied on funding that is no longer available. He writes excitedly about “new initiatives” but – for the majority of festival-goers, professionals and punters alike – the primary source of excitement will always be new films.

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