58th London Film Festival Review
By Ricky Ghosh Dastidar
The 58th BFI London Film Festival took place last month, breaking all its previous records in the process by attracting 163,300 visitors over a 12-day period. This was a 7.5% increase in festival attendance since last year and it was well reflected by the diverse range of feature films and short films on offer, totalling 248 and 148 respectively.
In addition to the London screenings, there was an extra UK-wide audience of 12,000 due to the live streaming of the opening night film (The Imitation Game) and the closing night film (Fury) across 50 cinemas around the country. Even the red-carpet events, attended by the likes of Brad Pitt and Keira Knightley were broadcast live as part of the festival’s on-going commitment to put the UK audience at the heart of the festival-going experience.
This year, the festival culminated in a star-studded awards ceremony introduced by the BFI Chairman Greg Dyke and hosted by the actor and comedian Ben Miller. The winner of the Best Film prize was Leviathan; a Russian drama directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. This outstanding film, which was also my personal highlight of the festival, tells the tragic tale of conflict between one man and a corrupt system of power in a small Russian town near the border with Finland. The cinematography is breath-taking and the acting is flawless. Leviathan also won the Best Screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
The Sutherland Award, presented to the director of the most original and imaginative debut feature was won by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy for The Tribe, which he also wrote. This unique film from Ukraine utilises a non-professional cast of young deaf people and depicts the closed world of a special boarding school with its own set of laws tackling organised crime, robbery and prostitution.
The BFI Fellowship was awarded to Stephen Frears by the playwright and screenwriter Sir David Hare, who praised the director for having made the ‘richest, most diverse and most consistently intelligent contribution to British film in his lifetime’. During his career, Stephen Frears has directed films as varied as Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen and My Beautiful Laundrette and he continues to make entertaining and critically acclaimed films, as evidenced by last year’s Philomena starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. The Fellowship is the highest accolade that the BFI can bestow and Stephen Frears now joins an illustrious list of past-winners which includes Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier and Mike Leigh.
My personal highlights of the festival, in addition to the magnificent Leviathan, were Rosewater; Jon Stewart’s striking directorial debut, and The Goob; a Norfolk-set drama directed by newcomer Guy Myhill. Rosewater tells the true story of a London-based Iranian journalist named Maziar Bahari, who spent 118 days in an Iranian prison following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election victory in 2009. After filming the street riots which took place in the aftermath of the results being announced, Bahari sent the footage back to the BBC, leading to his arrest by the Revolutionary Guard and subsequent incarceration in Evin prison for treason. The injustice and corruption lying at the heart of the story is handled with skill and subtlety by Stewart and sets him apart as a director to watch in the future, while Gael Garcia Bernal delivers an assured performance as the central character.
The Goob, on the other hand is a much more rural drama set in the Norfolk countryside. The film focusses on a 16 year old boy struggling to make the transition to adulthood, amidst a growing set of problems; most notably an abusive father-figure played to perfection by Sean Harris. The cinematography in the film is highly impressive and Myhill gets a performance out of his young lead (Liam Springs) which perfectly embodies the adversities and awkwardness of youth.
Other gems from world cinema included the South Korean drama A Girl at My Door, the Pakistani road-movie Dukhtar and the Spanish crime-thriller El Nino. Of these, the standout film was A Girl at My Door, which places a young female alcoholic police chief from Seoul into a new role at a backwater town in South Korea. Here she encounters a powerful and highly dysfunctional father who enjoys nothing better than physically abusing his young daughter, with the help of his own mother. The police chief soon strikes up a maternal bond with the young girl and allows her to live with her during the school holidays. This leads to further suspicion and alienation from her colleagues and townsfolk and the tense pacing of the scenes suggests that everything in her life could implode at any given second. Ultimately, allegations of child abuse are made against the police chief but the characters in the film are so well-developed, nothing is ever truly what it seems.
Another film which caught my attention was Dukhtar; a fast-paced road-movie set in Pakistan’s northern mountains about a mother attempting to save her 12-year-old daughter from an arranged marriage to an aging warlord. After they run away on the wedding day, the warlord sends a swarm of killers down the mountain to capture them, but the job is not as easy as it first seems. Written and directed by Afia Nathaniel, Dukhtar is a gripping thriller that explores the disturbing plight of child brides and tells of one courageous mother who takes a stand.
My final recommendation from this year’s festival is El Nino. This high-octane thriller from Spain is about a veteran detective trying to crack a drug ring operated through the Gibraltar Straits by a confident young smuggler named El Nino and his two accomplices. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between them while the detective tries to establish whether or not their contraband activities are part of a wider plot benefitting from the actions of a police informer. The action scenes are sure to keep you on the edge of your seat and Daniel Monzon’s direction effectively incorporates a sub-plot full of intrigue, suspense and betrayal.
One of the London Film Festival’s broader aims is to promote London as the world’s leading creative city and this was echoed by the attendance of 772 filmmaker guests, of which half were from outside the UK. Taking this into account, along with all the great films being shown each year, it is no wonder that the London Film Festival remains Britain’s leading film event.