George Fenwick and Ella Kemp compare notes from the 65th BFI London Film Festival, reflecting on shared connections between sporting legends, struggling mothers, and growing teenage boys.
For many of the titles screening at the 2021 London Film Festival, it’s a curious stop on the circuit: most have premiered elsewhere, and have already picked up distribution deals and glowing reviews by the time they’ve arrived. There was no less starry buzz, however, for the Spencers, Lost Daughters, Powers of the Dogs and Macbeths of the world than there was at Venice, Cannes or Toronto, which can perhaps be attributed to a fairly obvious fact: people love London.
Minimising time spent outside, where an unwelcome October chill is signalling the approaching winter, means maximising time spent cosying into cinemas, crowding into bars, discovering new stories, meeting new people, and quoting Keanu Reeves. Case in point: we began the festival as polite coffee acquaintances, and ended it as 3am curbside McDonald’s friends, passing a Chicken Legend back and forth like that fateful cigarette in The Power of the Dog.
As we began to notice throughout the festival, this year’s LFF was one of duality. Seemingly unrelated films started to feel as though they were in conversation with each other—seriously: this is a festival at which you could see films titled Lamb, Cow, Bull and Shepherd. Below, we reflect on LFF’s most unexpected companion films, which doubles as an unofficial suggested double-bill for any of your approaching winter movie nights.
The growing pains of a teenage boy
Look, I love nothing more than the story of an insecure young man coming of age thanks to an unlikely father figure. LFF really spoiled me in that regard, with The Hand of God and The Tender Bar lending a kind eye to teenagers figuring their worlds out—their loves, their hopes, their dreams.
The Hand of God sees Paolo Sorrentino zero in on Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti, a dead ringer for lil’ Timmy Chalamet) as he grows up in 1980s Naples—a time and a place turned upside down by the arrival of Diego Maradona. “I laughed, I cried, I questioned my life’s purpose,” said Mari on Letterboxd, who is also clearly me. Calvin Law, meanwhile, embraced Sorrentino’s change of pace: “Threw me into waters I’d never swum in and guided me with a deft hand”.
But then is there any man more gentle than George Clooney? The most charismatic dad in the world returns as director with The Tender Bar, adapting J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name about a young boy neglected by his father and finding refuge in his uncle’s bar.
“Completely inoffensive and actually kinda fun,” Manu Ausin says of the film’s breezy, meandering pace which welcomes you in for a drink without getting offended if you don’t stay too long. Some wanted to leave pretty quickly after the world premiere in the Royal Festival Hall though, with David Upton calling The Tender Bar “alarmingly flavourless”. Perhaps something a whisky on the rocks could wash down nicely?
The unlikely sporting hero
I don’t think I’m completely off the mark in saying I think a lot of film people are fairly allergic to sports, which is why I was as shocked as anyone to find myself openly weeping in not one, but two sporting biopics this year: The Phantom of the Open and King Richard. The former is a stranger-than-fiction underdog tale from actor/director Craig Roberts, and the latter is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser from Reinaldo Marcus Green about the larger-than-life father of Venus and Serena Williams.
Roberts’ biopic, a “charming ode to hope and ambition,” as Nathan says, is based on the extraordinary story of Maurice Flitcroft, a crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness who somehow blagged his way into the British Open Golf Championship and played the worst round in its history (icon!).
It’s absolutely brimming with heart and distinctly British quirk—the latter of which usually makes me squirm, but in this case charmed my golfing socks off—largely thanks to the irresistible performances of Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins as Flitcroft and his wife Jean. As meledgerwood1 writes, “it’s as if Paddington Bear learnt how to play golf,” which makes sense on a lot of levels: Paddington 2 scribe (and Barry the lovelorn security guard actor) Simon Farnaby is behind the script.
Meanwhile, King Richard opened to whoops and cheers at LFF’s Friday night Gala. I think Jonathan makes a sound point in saying the film probably should have “provided a thornier portrait of Richard Williams” and his moments of selfishness, but Mila also sums it up nicely: King Richard is “made and told with integrity, strength and heart,” and Will Smith’s performance is nothing short of “breathtaking”.
The ferocity of motherhood
Motherhood is messy—whether you’re an aristocratic royal or a reckless professor from Leeds. Our favourite volatile actors know this, too, as Kristen Stewart disappears into Diana Spencer in Pablo Larraín’s non-biopic Spencer and Olivia Colman comes alive as the snippy Leda in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante.
Mali calls Spencer “miraculous”, focusing particularly on “a rage so brutally, so madly, so violently female”, while it’s also about the menacing people around Diana, who make her mode of parenting so feral. But this isn’t uncharted territory for our Twilight queen, right? “Kristen Stewart is again accepted into a family of blood sucking demons, this time with horrific consequences!” writes Jay.
The Lost Daughter mirrors this, finding a great threat in the lengths women will go in order to protect themselves. We follow Leda on holiday, as an encounter with a threatening yet alluring family reminds her of the darkness of her own traumatic past. Anna McKenzie describes the film as “A hypnotic and alluring meditation on the secrets that women keep, and how they come to light,” nodding to the “code of silence” we’ve come to adopt so often when grappling with “duty, motherhood and freedom”.
But it’s a visceral watch, too, with Charlie Lyne noting: “It was so unbearably true, so painful and so close to home that if the cinema hadn’t been full and we hadn’t sat in the middle of a row I might have tried to escape.”
The internal prison of masculinity
Masculinity is a prison both literally and figuratively in two of this year’s best films, The Power of the Dog and Great Freedom. As we see in Jane Campion’s latest, the hardened exterior of rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cage that locks his true desires deep within.
In this scorched vision of Montana (played here, of course, by New Zealand), the filmmaker explores “how men’s quiet needs become masked by bitter bravado, and the delicate, damaged need for beauty they stamp out of each other,” as Sam observes. Issy pointed to the film’s standing in Campion’s filmography, writing that the New Zealand director has again proved herself a “master of the sensual, the unspoken erotic and repressed”. Seriously, this film contains the most erotic cigarette in recent film history.
Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom, meanwhile, finds its men literally behind bars: in postwar Germany, Hans (Franz Rogowski) is in and out of prison due to his homosexuality, but he refuses to let the harshness of his incarceration extinguish his yearning for tenderness, something that takes shape as “a lit match in a dark cell,” says aio, or as coded love letters pricked in the pages of a bible.
The cold brutality of prison is rendered artfully by Meise, who crucially, as axelkoch describes, “treasures the small moments of human kindness that shine through, such as a simple hug that wrecked me like no other scene I’ve seen in cinemas this year.”
The monochrome madness of family
It’s no secret that Kenneth Branagh adores William Shakespeare, so I’d like to think the filmmaker would appreciate an unlikely connection to Joel Coen’s new take on the Bard’s most maddening work. Branagh went personal with Belfast, something of a love letter to his childhood, while Coen took a leap of faith without his brother Ethan to tell the story of Macbeth once more.
Both of these films can be considered crowdpleasers in different ways. Branagh targets your tear ducts with the tale of little Buddy from Belfast (a major performance from newcomer Jude Hill) as his family navigates the Troubles. Griffin Schiller calls the film “fully immersive, intimate, endearing and authentic” and nods to the way Belfast trusts in Buddy’s perspective (very Cinema Paradiso or Roma) to tell this country’s story.
Like any good emotional epic it’s a little divisive: Eddie Mara says “there are no words to describe how much serotonin this film gave me” while Daniel Azbel threatens: “if this wins best picture i’m quitting kino forever.” May a Shakespearean duel decide their fate.
Which brings us to The Tragedy of Macbeth, this year’s Closing Gala and a sleek and stark retelling of the high-octane classic we know so well. Darren Carver-Balsiger calls the film “a visual feast”, which Jack echoes with a simple “f--- ME”, followed up by: “You have to watch this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound possible, because it isn’t just a film—it’s an event.”
Like Belfast, and so many of our favourites from this year’s London Film Festival, this is a film you can re-do and re-visit and re-think, but fundamentally you have to see it for yourself. With a new festival friend, with an understanding of the duality at play, with thanks and gratitude for yet another year at one of the best film festivals in the world.
—George Fenwick and Ella Kemp
(Header image from ‘Belfast’)