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Fretful publicists clutched umbrellas on wet red carpets, the din of nearby builders echoing through Leicester Square. As per tradition, so began this week’s London Film Festival, the British Film Institute making its annual pressing of the capital’s claim as a centre of global cinema. Naturally, the task was delegated first to our principal export, the fine-boned British leading man. Only slightly damp, Benedict Cumberbatch duly launched his new film The Imitation Game.
With rumpled tweeds and the shadow of a stutter, he plays mathematician and second world war codebreaker Alan Turing, whose later prosecution for homosexuality led to his suicide. A period piece, a message and a much-loved star: such is the essence of modern big-league British film, even when directed by a Norwegian (Morten Tyldum) and financed by Harvey Weinstein. In the cloisters of Sherborne School, the young Turing finds solace with a classmate; later, a spell in drab 1950s Manchester ends with court-ordered chemical castration; between the two come the wartime years in Bletchley Park, working secretly for MI6.
Here Turing builds the machine that unpicks the Nazis’ Enigma code and thus shortens or even wins the war; here, too, the film grapples most successfully with its nerves about how to represent Turing, settling in as a broad, basically jolly affair that involves you for the exact length of its running time.
Many, though, will be troubled by this version of Turing as a semi-comic super-nerd who might feasibly cameo on The Big Bang Theory. Connections are made in primary colours between a gift for code-breaking and a failure to crack the puzzle of other people – and from his fantabulous contraption to the computer on which you may be reading this. We leave shaking our heads at the sins of past generations but, British as we are, what stays with us is mostly how much we like Benedict Cumberbatch.
Another LFF staple is the eminent British director, and this year the reverence is aimed at Mike Leigh. Now 71, Leigh has reached the point where he might be expected to deliver a grand, career-defining statement. It may have arrived with the potent Mr Turner, particularly if we’re bold enough to assume an identification between the director and a painter of curmudgeonly reputation, working around the whims of moneyed patrons and idiot critics who never did see what was so great about shipwrecks. Either way, sceptics who still have Leigh tagged as a miserabilist whose movies look like TV will be left confounded, his film taking Turner’s genius as a gauntlet and replying with its own dazzling concoctions of light.
But it’s Timothy Spall whom audiences will fall for. First glimpsed as a distant pinprick, his Turner soon strides into close-up, sourly ogreish, clenched and muttering. At first you worry that the grunts and snarls might tip into parody; yet we find we don’t need him to speak to be gripped by him. In one brief, brilliant scene, Turner is tied to a ship’s mast during a North Sea storm, cackling dementedly en route to inspiration. In that moment Spall lets us see a sliver of what he’s seeing in the mad churn of spray and spit, and without doing anything so dull as telling us. If the going rate for a picture remains unchanged, how many thousands of words is an actor this good worth?
The elemental also looms in The Falling, though here it’s not great artists confronting it but schoolgirls. This year’s LFF has upped the representation of women directors beyond the abject ratio offered by the wider industry, and one result is a programme lighter than usual on stories in which men do or say things to other men. In director Carol Morley’s effervescent new film, the heroines are the captives of a moth-eaten girls school in the woozy last days of the 1960s, flocking together to smoke, quote Wordsworth, and anticipate life after virginity.
The school grounds are bucolic; birth and death lurk; a chemistry teacher prods at a bloodspot in an egg. And then the fainting starts. First to suffer the reverie and then collapse is the spiky, discontented Lydia (played by Maisie Williams, whose presence in TV’s Game of Thrones may give the film commercial heft despite its lack of broadswords). Soon the malaise spreads to her classmates. It is, they argue, a clinical mystery, an occult eruption. Adults sniff about attention-seeking and girlish tricks with wet blotting paper.
It’s a fitting dispute for a film that juggles the mundane and otherworldly. Morley has a gleeful eye for the minutiae of school life – a forlorn life-class model, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” trilled out in assembly. But there’s something wilder at the heart of the film, the restless pace of scenes passing creating a giddy momentum that can’t help reminding you of the chaos of actually being young.
In The Falling, the soundtrack cuts off when a girl slips into a faint. In director Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, the happy, rowdy voices of a group of young black Parisian women instantly hush as they re-enter their estate. The girls peel away to their own flats. Soon just one is left. She is Mariéme, and it’s this uncertain girl from the banlieues whose life forms the backbone of what follows. There is the bleak choice of a cleaning job or a baby too young, gang life, violence filmed on smartphones. It sounds, I know, like the most dreary social realism, a cue to sit under a tree instead. And yet, if you did, you would miss out on one of the LFF’s freshest experiences, a film with life in its bones and a vivid aesthetic zing. In place of wagging a finger at her audience, Sciamma shows us Mariéme and her friends miming rapturously to Rihanna in shoplifted dresses with the antitheft tags still attached. Do you want to judge them? La vie, Girlhood says, est complexe.
A rare frisson of excitement greeted the festival’s press screening of The Duke of Burgundy, partly because of its status as the new film from director Peter Strickland, a singular British talent long exiled in eastern Europe. But the hubbub may also have been due to the nature of the movie, a tale of an eccentric S&M liaison between two women (one played by Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen). Few films, after all, include credits for lingerie or perfume, much less items of eye-widening recreational equipment whose very mention may constitute a spoiler.
Strickland’s film takes place in a milieu completely devoid of men, their gender so irrelevant the absence isn’t even mentioned. In fact, much as all concerned are clearly having a ball with the seamed stockings, as much joy is taken in the creation of a non-specific middle Europe filled with all-female lepidopterists.
But a film needs more than a dirty mind and whimsy (doesn’t it?), and Strickland’s real trick is uncovering the washed-out vest of tedium beneath the corsetry. Even that might simply feel like a one-liner after a while – the bacchanal cancelled on account of a bad back. At its best, though, his sad-eyed wit takes us into the poignantly universal, to the place where loving couples find endless ways to make each other unhappy. In any relationship, they say, there is the kisser and the kissed. In The Duke of Burgundy, it’s worse: there is the snorer and the snored at, and if other people’s unwelcome noise isn’t typically London, what is?
To October 19, bfi.org.uk/lff
Pick of the rest
Bennett Miller, US
Quite the strangest film to be frequently talked up as an Oscar contender, Bennett Miller’s new film is no less queasily excellent for it. Recounting the story of chemical heir John Du Pont, his unlikely involvement with the US wrestling teamand his 1996 murder of gold medallist and all-round good guy Dave Schultz, the factual spine of Miller’s film is available to anyone withWikipedia. Yet, like the wrestlers we see practising at the start of the film, the director is cruelly expert at leaving us off-balance and gasping. Danny Leigh
Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia
Of the many bold things about Leviathan, perhaps the boldest is that its trajectory is so precisely what you expect it to be after watching the first scene. Heroic interventions and last-minute reversals of fate are, we realise, something that happens in Hollywood movies, not in modern Russia. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s account of political skulduggery in a provincial backwater is a fiercely absorbing swirl of family drama and small-town intrigue. It’s also a scalding, fearless portrait of corruption that seeps up from the very soil. DL
Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania
The Islamic militia who take control of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu in Abderrahmane Sissako’s spare, sad, sometimes beautiful film seem almost amateurish, puffed-up figures harassing old men about the length of their trousers and telling women selling fish to wear gloves. Theological manholes are stumbled into: can you still like Zinedine Zidane while banning the locals from playing football? But the farcical is no obstacle to the brutal, and even arch-humanist Sissako only has so much empathy and understanding. DL
History of Fear
Benjamin Naishwat, Argentina
Above a string of smoking fires on the ground, a helicopter whirrs, one of the occupants barking orders out to the people below. Yet their tannoy doesn’t work, their message goes unheard, and the fires continue. Not much does work, in fact, in this coolly elliptical portrait of an Argentinian gated community that seems in the first stages of a slo-mo breakdown. Benjamin Naishwat’s narrative is slim, but the atmosphere of something profound going terribly awry is hard to shake. DL
Damien Chazelle, US
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than: ‘good job’,” snarls the brutally uncompromising bandleader in this bruising thriller from writer/director Damien Chazelle. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a jazz drumming prodigy who comes to be tutored and tormented by a sadistic conservatory teacher of military mien and acid tongue (played by JK Simmons). The film rides a Rocky-like rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows but always underpinned by the worrisome psychological fragility of its young protagonist. This is a searing study of fanatical ambition that is wound tight from beginning to (especially) end – the breath-halting final crescendo has left audiences trembling like a well-struck drumskin. Raphael Abraham
Damián Szifrón, Argentina/Spain
An Argentinean eye-widener with more twists than a tango, Damián Szifrón’s unpredictable compendium of six stories offers a bracing hit of cathartic revenge, wish fulfilment and earthy black humour. Two road ragers give full vent to their animal urges; an engineer declares war on his city’s parking bureau; and Cinderella meets Bridezilla in a wedding from hell. There is a pleasing thrill in seeing narrative conventions repeatedly violated and premises stretched to outlandish extremes. No surprise to find Pedro Almodóvar credited as producer. RA
Jon Stewart, US
Already guaranteed attention for being the filmmaking debut of TV satirist Jon Stewart, Rosewater has gained a dismaying timeliness in light of Ghoncheh Ghavami’s ongoing detention and hunger strike. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who in 2009 was imprisoned while reporting on the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the protests that followed it. Garcia Bernal is earnest and ardent as Bahari, but Kim Bodnia, Danish star of TV chiller The Bridge, is miscast as his witless interrogator and wrestles with an accent of no fixed abode. Those expecting Daily Show levels of wit and invention might come away disappointed. This is a respectable but low-risk rookie feature, not so much flawed as floored by the weight of high expectations and good intentions. RA