London Film Festival: Best of British

With the 2012 London Film Festival in full swing, Siobhan Callas of looks at the British productions in this year’s programme.

Seven Psychopaths

It’s time once again for the UK’s biggest (and possibly longest titled) film event of the year, The 56th BFI London Film Festival in partnership with American Express.

The festival sees a total of 225 feature films from 68 different countries playing across the capital city’s cinemas for 12 days throughout October. And much to my own personal joy, one sixth of this year’s chosen screen outings are home-grown.

High on my list of this year’s British must-sees is Ben Wheatley’s greatly anticipated Sightseers. After premiering at this year’s Cannes Festival, Sightseers finds itself as the Laugh Gala selection for the 2012 London Festival. Although those with a weak constitution should be warned that if the synopsis is anything to go by it will have gore and laughs in equal measure. The two lead characters, Tina and Chris, begin their caravanning holiday with the most romantic of intentions but unbeknownst to them will end up as serial killers. This meeting of horror and comedy is no surprise coming from one of the UK’s fastest rising film making talents. After his film debut, the crime comedy Down Terrace in 2009, came the genre mish-mash of Kill List: the hitman-drama meets creepy occult-horror was the surprise hit of 2011. Sightseers has already garnered rave reviews, but it will be interesting to see if the script lives up to the originality of Wheatley’s previous work as this time he takes on the role of director only. The writing credits instead go to the two lead actors Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, with Kill List co-writer Amy Jump credited under “additional material”. Perhaps the new set of writers will give this Wheatley project a steadier structure, but let’s hope it doesn’t lose any of the unique and off-beat dialogue of his self written titles.

And from relative new director on the block to possibly one of Britain’s busiest film-makers; Michael Winterbottom started directing in 1989 and hasn’t stopped since. Already this year we have seen his feature film Trishna, loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, hit the screens; now playing at the LFF as part of the Official Competition, is Everyday. The film stars popular Winterbottom cast members Shirley Henderson and John Simm and centres on the story of a mother who has to raise her four children alone whilst her husband is in prison. From the sound of it Everyday could be in the same low key observational style as seen in previous works. 2009’s Genova, dealt with a similar subject matter as Colin Firth played a father left to care for his children after the sudden death of his wife. Genova was an interesting and enjoyable film, so I look forward to finding out if Everyday will be more of the same.

Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday.

Among the projects that have been creating the most buzz even before the festival had begun are the low budget features Shell and My Brother the Devil, both of which are in the First Feature Competition. Shell is writer/director Scott Graham’s debut feature; the title character is a 17 year old woman living and working in a remote petrol station in the Highlands of Scotland, and the film promises to be an engrossing study of physical and emotional isolation. My Brother the Devil, the debut feature of writer/director Sally El Hosaini, tells the story of two brothers of Egyptian decent living in Hackney. One brother is becoming further involved in local gang life just as the other is in need of escaping it.

Both Shell and My Brother the Devil may be the type of genres which British audiences are used to seeing. But they are being talked about so much by critics because both the new filmmakers are taking familiar subjects and creating something original and powerful whilst showcasing great performances from the young cast.

In contrast, two British blockbusters are topping and tailing this year’s festival. Wednesday evening’s Opening Night Gala was the long awaited stop motion animation Frankenweenie from Tim Burton. Produced in the UK and distributed by Disney, Frankenweenie is the tale of a young boy who brings back to life his beloved dog Sparky and is based on Burton’s 1984 short film of the same name. The film reunites previous Burton alumni Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short as the voices of the colourless characters in this wonderfully wacky world. Frankenweenie is already set to be a hit and a return for Tim Burton to his old school magical and imaginative roots.

Closing this year’s festival is Mike Newell’s star-studded adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Whether or not you are convinced a new adaptation is needed or that it will do the book any justice, the impressive British cast list alone is surely worth a look. The new version of this epic classic stars (big breath) Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Robbie Coltrane, Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Ewen Bremner, Sally Hawkins, Sophie Rundle, David Walliams, Tamzin Outhwaite and Jessie Cave. I’m sure there are many more names to add but you get the picture: it’s going to be big.

Another British film I am personally looking forward to is the (hopefully) feel-good Song for Marion. Partly as a bit of an antidote to the many downbeat features seen at this year’s festivals, and partly for my secret (now public) girl crush, Gemma Arterton. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams (London to Brighton), Song For Marion tells the story of Arthur (Terence Stamp) and his terminally ill wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave). Marion joins a contemporary choir, led by Elizabeth (Arterton), much to Arthur’s annoyance. The film features songs from Salt-n-Pepa to Stevie Wonder to Motorhead. Although the story may be some people’s idea of Hell, the cast, which also includes Christopher Eccleston as Marion and Arthur’s son, and the direction of Paul Andrew Williams will hopefully steer this to a heart felt and enjoyable experience and not a cringe-worthy one. Although Gemma Arterton is in it, so who cares!

To be honest the list of British films worth catching goes on and on at this year’s London Film Festival. But a few others on my radar are Official Competition title Lore a joint UK/Australia/Germany production from director Cate Shortland (Somersault), set at the end of World War II, in which five siblings have to make a 900km trek through post-war Germany. Broken is the debut feature from theatre director Rufus Norris and stars Cillian Murphy, Tim Roth and Eloise Laurence in the story of 11 year old Skunk, who witnesses a violent incident involving her neighbours in the London cul de sac where she lives. I, Anna is a psychological thriller starring Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Hayley Atwell and Eddie Marsan. It is the first feature film from TV series director and son of Charlotte Rampling, Barnaby Southcombe. Rampling plays a lonely divorcee who whilst looking for love becomes involved in a murder investigation, but the troubled woman has other secrets buried so deep that it becomes detective Bernie Reid’s mission to help her try to uncover them. Another crime themed feature is the Nick Murphy directed Blood, with a great cast which includes Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Brian Cox and Mark Strong. It’s a gripping thriller about the murder of a young girl. Cop brothers Joe (Bettany) and Chrissie (Graham) get drawn so far into the investigation that it becomes almost impossible to get out of. Quartet is another directorial debut, this time from acting legend Dustin Hoffman. Four ageing opera singers are re-united in a specialist retirement home in this UK produced comedy drama. It is written by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and stars Maggie Smith, Billie Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon as the concert director.

In the Treasures section of the LFF is the brand-new digital restoration of David Lean’s Director’s Cut of Lawrence of Arabia, the 1955 Laurence Olivier directed Richard III, while Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 silent film The Manxman is the Archive Gala. There are also three British entries in this year’s Documentary Competition. Turned Towards The Sun is the life story of British writer and poet Micky Burn MC; For No Good Reason, the story of artist Ralph Steadman whose illustrations accompanied the writing of Hunter S Thompson; and Village at the End of the World, a compelling portrait of a remote village in Northern Greenland with a population of 59.

Turned Towards The Sun

But…last but not least, topping my must see list of this year’s festival is definitely Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the genius behind 2008’s In Bruges. Yes, I have no problem in referring to McDonagh as a genius even though In Bruges and the Oscar winning 2004 short film Six Shooter is his only screen work to date. Although the director/writer’s film history is more of a leaflet than a back catalogue, this is of course because he is also a very successful and Laurence Olivier winning playwright, something evident in the writing of In Bruges. Although it has something of an oddball plot and, according to my Mother anyway, is a little childish in its humour (Colin Farrell does karate-chop a dwarf after all), I find In Bruges to be completely masterful in its story telling, with the rhythm and the flow of the dialogue written in a way uniquely pleasing to my aspiring-screenwriter ears. But anyway, back to Seven Psychopaths. The film sees Colin Farrell return as one of the mentioned ‘psychopaths’ along with Hollywood heavy-weights Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, bond girl Olga Kurylenko, Aussie actress Abbie Cornish and um, oh yeah, music legend Tom Waits! Who actually has more acting credits than I had realised (30 to be exact).

If any doubts exist of whether it can live up to In Bruges, it sounds at least as though it matches it in oddball plot. Colin Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter with a drink problem who becomes entangled in the LA underworld after his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) kidnaps the local gang boss Charlie’s pet shih tzu. A completely ridiculous sounding story which I am most pleased about. Seven Psychopaths is also in Official Competition at the Festival and (to me anyway) already sounds like a winner.

The BFI London Film Festival runs until 21 October.

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