The 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival opened on June 16 in the presence of its most famous patron, whose blend of fierce nationalism and canny tax sense make his home-town appearances all the more cherished for their rarity. One wonders what Sir Sean Connery made of the first offering.
Based on a plot by the great comic Jacques Tati, The Illusionist depicts a 1950s French stage magician in the dying days of music hall trying to revive his flagging fortunes in Scotland. He sets up in Edinburgh, caring for a naive waif from the Western Isles who believes his magic is real. Told in animation by Sylvain Chomet, maker of 2002’s charming Belleville Rendez-Vous, the fable is visually enchanting, an ode to Scotland and particularly Chomet’s adopted home of Edinburgh.
The human characters are less successful. The illusionist is portrayed as Tati himself, the Hulot of Mon Oncle: tall, ungainly, with the bemused air of a benevolent camel. But mime, Tati’s speciality, when expressed through animation stylises the already stylised; physical humour that owes its effect to a caricatured humanity falls flat when even further removed from reality. But the wistful ending charms and Edinburgh is magically evoked.
Edinburgh, albeit the savage estates of Trainspotting rather than the touristy picturesque, is also the setting for the creepy Outcast, directed by Colm McCarthy. To Auld Reekie from the Ould Sod comes an Irish traveller (Kate Dickie), ferociously protective of her withdrawn teenage son, pursued by those bent on violence, even death. She is a witch and her hunters are given to magic practices to find her (chiefly calling Edinburgh pigeons into their hands and stabbing them for their informative entrails). It all verges on the preposterous but is saved by atmosphere and intense performances, including a surprisingly powerful James Nesbitt.
The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, with its individuality, boldness and bizarre blend of mythic yarn-spinning, is an extraordinary debut feature. Tiller Russell’s Western is set in 1912, which explains a bereaved father transporting his son’s corpse across the desert in the back of a car. Add a richly caparisoned tent in the middle of nowhere housing tragic Siamese twins, one of whom is dying (which means they both are), and a bitterly articulate dwarf. There is also a disfigured Mexican voodoo priestess, a scripture-quoting killer, a code of honour, and in Lizzy Caplan (True Blood) a believably tough woman who fights, swears, beds and kills on a par with the men. Totally riveting, with a weird poetry all its own. What will Russell do next?
Stay original, one hopes. The tendency for a genre to proliferate is noticeable. No sooner does Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet recount the rise of a convict from victimised drudge to wealthy prison drug dealer than along comes R. This Danish film was shot in a notorious Copenhagen prison with real ex-cons as scary extras. It is tauter, sparer and more documentary in style than its French predecessor, and its hideous ending is far from the latter’s complacent conclusion.
Another familiar theme is the respectable household terrorised by intrusive brutality. I’m not sure what the point of Cherry Tree Lane is except to confirm that Paul Andrew Williams can direct thrillers, which we already know from London to Brighton. His latest, shot on location in Muswell Hill (property values may tumble after this), shows a middle-class couple’s dinner interrupted by thugs who truss and gag them, then await the couple’s son who grassed on one of their number. The acting is good – the intruders are genuinely terrifying – but attempts to pad out character and background fail dismally. Whether it amounts to more than voyeuristic grand guignol is questionable.
Among the festival’s pleasant surprises is Obselidia, about a Los Angeles librarian who in his spare time compiles an encyclopaedia of obsolescence – objects, species, love and, by implication, everything. His relationship with a bright, eco-concerned silent film projectionist takes them on a trip to Death Valley, prompting discussions and possibly a reassessment on his part of love’s redundancy. Engaging, gentle and at times given to corny dialogue but a true original.
Another treasure is Get Low, apparently based on a real event in 1938 when a Tennessee hermit emerged after decades in the woods to hear the townsfolk’s opinion of him at a mock funeral. Award-winning cinematographer Aaron Schneider makes his feature directorial debut with a funny and tender retelling of the story, set slightly earlier in Depression times.
Robert Duvall plays the recluse, a towering presence whether brandishing a shotgun or melting into sardonic wit, never putting a foot – or eyebrow or little finger – wrong. Bill Murray is both sad and funny as the failing funeral director whose opportunism is balanced by decency and a conscience. This character has a life beyond the limits of the story, as does Sissy Spacek, radiantly touching as a figure from the recluse’s past. A lovely film.
Six years ago a quirky and haunting Icelandic film, Nói the Albino, made a stir on the art-house circuit. The director, Dagur Kári, is back with The Good Heart, a slice of New York bar-life, with unshakable regulars, losers and squabblers bound together as inexorably as in Boston’s Cheers. Here the patron is the foul-mouthed, abrasive, reactionary Jacques, who takes a failed suicide under his wing and grooms him to take over the bar.
The young vagrant (Paul Dano) is wide-eyed and sweet-natured, and his innate kindness soon reduces his misanthropic mentor to spluttering rage. Jacques is played by a masterly Brian Cox: the mannered hamminess that marred his early theatre days has been subsumed into an almost playful power that never goes too far but retains the ability to surprise, far beyond the character as written. It is no surprise that this near-expressionist vision of the Big Apple was filmed mainly in Iceland. Its foreignness seems part of the dream, a bittersweet fairy tale with an ending whether happy or tragic (depending on your sympathies) that still portrays a redemption of sorts.
Ends June 27, www.edfilmfest.org.uk