59th BFI London Film Festival: Review
By Ricky Ghosh Dastidar
Britain’s leading film event, The BFI London Film Festival took place in the capital recently, celebrating its 59th edition. This year’s programme comprised a total of 240 feature films and documentaries; 17 of which were World Premieres, 8 of which were International Premieres and 39 of which were European Premieres. The festival kicked off with an opening night screening of Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep and concluded with the screening of Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs. Many of the films’ stars attended the red carpet screenings and both films showcased a wealth of strong British talent.
The festival culminated with the London Film Festival Awards ceremony and this year’s winners were Athina Rachel Tsangari, who took the Best Film prize for Chevalier, Robert Eggers, who won the Best First Feature prize for The Witch and Jennifer Peedom, who won the Best Documentary award for Sherpa. The highest award that the BFI can bestow is the Fellowship and this year’s recipient was none other than two-time Academy Award winner, Cate Blanchett, who also had two of her most recent films presented at the festival.
In addition to the screenings, there was a number of exciting film talks held, helping to connect audiences with internationally renowned and home-grown filmmakers. Some of the speakers at these events included Geena Davis, Todd Haynes, Walter Salles and Saoirse Ronan. As part of the talks, there was a strand called LFF Connects, focussing on the future of film and how it manages to engage with other creative industries, and the speakers on this theme included Christopher Nolan and Louis Theroux.
My personal highlights of the festival were Black Mass, Carol and The Idol. Black Mass tells the story of real-life Irish-American gangster, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his rise to power in South Boston during the 1970s. The film is directed by Scott Cooper and provides an unflinching account of the vice and corruption evident at the time, involving both the FBI and the criminal underworld. What sets this film apart from other gangster films is the fine acting from a strong ensemble cast that includes Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson and Johnny Depp, playing the main role of Jimmy Bulger.
Carol on the other hand is an altogether different film and is based on the 1950s novel, The Price of Salt, by Strangers on a Train writer Patricia Highsmith. Directed by Todd Haynes, Carol focusses on the relationship between a young Manhattan department-store clerk, played by Rooney Mara and an older socialite experiencing a crumbling marriage, played by Cate Blanchett. Although same-sex relationships were very much a taboo in America and even illegal at the time, the film very sensitively addresses the challenges faced by the two women and the consequences of pursuing their love for each other. Blanchett and Mara both deliver stand-out performances and Haynes’ ability to recreate the time and the world in which the story was set is simply masterful.
My final highlight from this year’s festival was the Palestinian film, The Idol. Directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise now, Omar), The Idol tells the true story of Mohammad Assaf, who fled from his home in the Gaza Strip to pursue his dream of singing on “Arab Idol”, which was being filmed in neighbouring Egypt. Overcoming numerous obstacles, such as not having a passport, or even an invitation to audition on the show, Assaf triumphs against all odds to not just succeed in the competition but to become a national hero and give hope to many Palestinians across the world. Feel-good films with a similar plot may have been made countless times before, but The Idol is definitely worth seeking out and the script, acting and suspense are all of the highest order.
The London Film Festival was held over 12 days and the screenings took place in local cinemas such as the Brixton Ritzy and Hackney Picturehouse as well as in the more common Central London and West-End venues. One of the aims of the festival is to introduce the finest British and International films to UK audiences and this was reflected by the strong 157,000 total attendance, and the simultaneous screenings of the opening and closing night film at cinemas up and down the country added an extra 10,000 to the final number. Furthermore, a staggering 743 directors and film-makers personally attended the festival to present their work and half of these came from overseas. The Festival is clearly going from strength to strength and this was emphasised by Festival Director Clare Stewart, who praised the strong selection of films this year which ‘moved, challenged and inspired audiences’ and concluded by saying ‘we are approaching the 60th edition in great shape and are excited about what the future holds for filmmaking and the London Film Festival.’