London Film Festival 2011 – Day 7

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Weekend tells the story of two people. In the coming months it will be labelled and marketed as a gay movie, and it is – and probably the first time contemporary gay life has been depicted with such accuracy and sensitivity – but first and foremost, it’s a story of these two specific people, at this specific time in their life, and what transpires between them.

Tom Cullen and Chris New play two guys who, after hooking up at a divey gay club in Nottingham, decide – Before Sunrise style – to spend the rest of the weekend together before one moves to America for the foreseeable future. Director Andrew Haigh’s camera navigates their blossoming relationship with sensitivity and grace, shooting them as a voyeur in the crowd when they’re in public spaces, and with up-close intimacy when they’re alone, deftly highlighting the difficulties of being truly open and comfortable in a world that is still stiflingly heterosexual.

But it’s the dialogue, and those two central performances, that make Weekend truly special. Cullen and New simply are these characters, and watching them explore each other and discover themselves is never less than a wonder, even when the film is at its most emotionally devastating. Their conversations are candid, funny, insightful, and eventually overwhelming, and by the time the film closes you feel as though you know these two people, inside and out.

I truly hope Weekend finds a wide audience. Make no mistake, there’s no way this could have worked with a straight couple as the focus. But in the highly specific nuances and details of these two characters Haigh has found a way to capture the full breadth of gay experience in 2011, and possibly something even more universal than that. Hopefully, it will establish him as one of the most important British directors working today. — Adam Howard

Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2011)

Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life is a documentary about the discovery of a young woman’s remains, some three years after her death in a flat in North London. Her body had decomposed so badly that medical examiners couldn’t establish a cause of death, and before Morley’s extraordinary efforts to uncover the story of her life, little was known of Joyce Carol Vincent (played here in reconstructions by Zawe Ashton) aside from the horrific way her death was discovered.

Like Errol Morris’ Tabloid, Dreams of a Life‘s greatest strengths come from the investigative work of the filmmakers, and the remarkable story that they uncover. Morley’s film has an unremarkable structure – basically a timeline of her life. It limits her access, though, to those who thought fondly of Joyce, meaning that the circumstances leading up to her disappearance from those who cared for her are no more than speculated upon.

While that unbalances the narrative, it maybe makes the film a more powerful experience. Morley’s interest, like that of much of the audience, was piqued by the mystery of how a beautiful, popular and capable young woman could leave herself so isolated that nobody would check on her whereabouts for more than three years.

The collective feeling of disbelief from those who had been friends with her is incredibly moving, and makes the story even more remarkable. What doesn’t quite fit are some of the attempts to tie the story into a morality tale about the evils of modernity or consumerism, but the story of Joyce Vincent is powerful enough to override the film’s flaws. — “Ron Swanson”

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

Justin Kurzel’s relentless, pummelling debut feature is based on the horrifying facts of Australia’s worst (known) sequence of serial killings, variously known as the “Snowtown murders” or (more accurately, as the murders mostly didn’t actually take place in Snowtown, but in suburban Adelaide, which is portrayed here as the version of Ramsay Street that probably haunts Satan’s own nightmares) the “bodies in barrels murders” – the ugly banality of the latter the final insult to the victims (a dozen of them at least) of John Bunting, whose fictional incarnation here, played by film debutant Daniel Henshall,  says of the people he kills: no-one cares about these people, they’re dirt, subhuman.

Henshall plays Bunting as a blandly charismatic psychopath, inveigling his way into the life of  a damaged family when he runs their kiddy-fiddling neighbour out of town, and subsequently setting himself up as a father figure to one in particular of the family’s teenage boys ( the relative weakling Jamie, plated by Lucas Pittaway: like everyone in the film apart from Henshall, a  non-pro who Kurzel has coaxed into a flawlessly credible performance). Bunting’s kills ostensibly start as street justice. He holds forth at the dinner table about how the law won’t clean the streets of paedophiles and drug pushers, so it’s up to the likes of him. The irony is that, when he starts killing in earnest, the police are nowhere to be seen – this is a world a hair’s breadth from lawlessness, and Kurzel pushes hard at the idea that Bunting’s pathology grew almost inevitably from his particularly Australian delusions about the role of men in such a world.

Of course, what may have started as vigilantism soon stands revealed as psychopathy, at least on Bunting’s part. Disturbingly, he draws others into his orbit who share in his bloodlust with relish. It isn’t revealing too much, for various reasons, to note that Bunting is soon grooming Jamie to be one of them.

There are some obvious parallels between Snowtown and last year’s Aussie crime hit Animal Kingdom, particularly in the central relationship between a reactive, malleable young boy and a quietly terrifying older man. But where Animal Kingdom was a fairly straight genre piece (its downfall, for me, as the plot unravelled in the home stretch) Snowtown is a much less mainstream proposition. On the one hand scrupulously based on fact, on the other it disdains most of the genre machinery of crime thrillers, racing breathlessly, impressionistically through plot points, leaving dead ends conspicuously unresolved, preferring to take us on a  largely subjective trip into the hell Jamie has made for himself inside his own mind. Mostly, this works beautifully, the performances, direction, cinematography and score all working to engender an almost physical, unendurable level of dread and fear. It’s arguable that this approach is not compatible with Kurzel’s more analytical aspirations: I don’t have an answer to that at this stage.

The other way this is different from Animal Kingdom: it ain’t getting no Oscar nominations. The preposterously ugly violence alone will see to that, and has led to the film being widely denounced as an exercise in empty sadism (note that almost all the depiction of violence is off screen: Kurzel only shows you stuff he really wants you to feel). I was, at points, ready to jump that way during the film: the reminders in the end credits that it was based on true events, for me, gave the film the figleaf it came close to needing. That raises its own questions, and I’ve gone on for far too long already, but yes, this is a film that won’t let go of me quite yet. — Indy Datta

Wonderful London (Harry B Parkinson, Frank Miller, 1924)

Harry B Parkinson and Frank Miller produced over 20 short documentary films for the Wonderful London series, taking their cameras on barges travelling the Regent’s Canal, into the slums of Limehouse, and out into the suburbs, observing young lovers on a Sunday afternoon (not as interesting as it sounds – this is 1924, after all).  Six restored films were shown, with a live piano accompaniment from Neil Brand.

Cheap and cheerful was the watchword for these mini travelogues. Parkinson and Miller pointed the camera at anything that looked interesting, and linked the disparate scenes with hand-lettered slides: moving from Knightsbridge to Petticoat Lane in seconds for London’s Free Shows –  a compilation of street entertainments such as dancing dogs and paper tearers: the highlight being the London Fire Brigade’s weekly display of precision hosing (srsly). London Off the Track showed long-gone silent alleys and secret places, including the Scandinavian Temperence Hostel: an ivy-clad and apparently deserted building in almost rural surroundings. London’s Sunday and Flowers of London featured those great London pastimes: gardening and arsing around in parks.

In Cosmopolitan London, we learned about the “negro clubs” of Whitcomb Street, the Italians of Saffron Hill, and the Chinese community in Limehouse, all interspersed with casually racist comments from the directors. Barging through London followed the Regent’s Canal, passing almost rural back gardens in Poplar, past choking factories in Mile End, through an unrecognisable Islington, past Regents Park to Paddington.  The archivists called these films a time capsule of a forgotten age, but I thought they showed some of the eternal constants of London life. Roads still get dug up on a weekly basis; girls still cling onto the back of their boyfriends’ motorbikes on a Sunday outing, and Guards still march down Horseguards Parade. — Sarah Slade

Shin-Heike Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955)

Playing in the LFF’s reliably brilliant “Treasure from the Archives” strand, Shin-Heike Monogatari, based on a historical novel by Yoshikawa, is Kenji Mizoguchi’s penultimate film and one of only two colour features he made. It takes us back to the 12th century when the samurai haven’t yet begun to exercise their might and authority over the whole of Japan – the balance of power is at a three-way tipping point between the Emperor’s court, the Samurai and a corrupt order of monks . The film was made in the mid fifties,  when Ozu was making  films about the breakdown of contemporary Japanese society and family. Set centuries ago in a similar period of social and political upheaval, one gets the feeling that Shin-Heike Monogatari would have been no less relevant to post-war Japan.

The story begins with the elder Taira Tadamori returning victorious from battle with his son only to be spurned both by the Senior Emperor’s court and by the monks. The aristocrats fight among themselves while droughts ravage the land. The monks take out holy palanquins (said to carry the souls of the dead) to scare the masses and the Court into submission. Tadamori remains loyal to the Senior Emperor but his son Kiyomori takes things into his own hands and decides to establish the power of samurai by fighting both the monks and the royals. Kiyomori is helped in his transformation from loyal son to rebel by an identity crisis – whose son is he really? As his mother was a courtesan before Tadamori married her, he could be the Senior Emperor’s son, he could be Tadamori’s son or he could be the son of a wayward monk. For those of you who are here for Mizoguchi’s female characters and his focus on female oppression, never fear – Kiyomori’s mother, the courtesan who moves easily between the three classes and ties them to each other is a true Mizoguchi heroine.

But enough said about the story. With Mizoguchi, as it is with the other Japanese masters, it is never just the story – the genius is in what surrounds the story whether it be the background score, the black humour, the panoramic shots, the seemingly unhurried but exact pacing – all of which can be seen in abundance in this classic lovingly remastered by the technicians at the Tokyo Film Centre. My endless gratitude to the LFF for bringing this to a screen in London! — Veena Muthuraman

Adam Howard (@afahoward) blogs at The Blank Projector. Sarah Slade is  @Sladey66 on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “London Film Festival 2011 – Day 7

  1. Is it going to be a little unfortunate for “Dreams of a Life” that Zawe Ashton is now better known in a comic role in “Fresh Meat?. Or maybe it’s a good thing.

  2. I didn’t know how to put it in the review, but one of the time capsule elements was watching crowds of men march alongside the Life Guards in Whitehall, and the lingering shots of the flowers at the Cenotaph. The films were shot six years after the end of WWI, and it was clear that memories were still raw.

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