London Film Festival 2013: Closing Day Round-Up

The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, 2013)

Ralph Fiennes’ second outing as director, following Coriolanus, sees him shift from one of the traditional choices of the serious thesp-turned-filmmaker, Shakespeare, to the other – costume drama.  An adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s biography, The Invisible Woman is the story of Nelly Ternan, the actress who for many years was the mistress of Charles Dickens.

We initially meet Nelly (Felicity Jones) some years after Dickens’ death; now married with a family, she is directing a school production of a play by Wilkie Collins. This stirs up memories of how she first met Dickens when, aged 18, she performed in the same author’s play.

The Charles Dickens presented here is a showman who lives in the full glare of celebrity (in one scene, he is mobbed by adoring fans).  He is larger than life, effusive if perhaps somewhat egotistical, and shows a warmth not generally associated with Fiennes.  However, once you get over the shock that Dickens isn’t being played by Simon Callow, Fiennes is quite successful in the role; I particularly enjoyed his scenes with Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins.

Unfortunately, I was less engaged in his relationship with Nelly, whose dilemma really should be the most interesting element of the film.  Though the pair are swiftly attracted to each other, Nelly is reluctant to enter into a sexual relationship with a married man (though I was unclear exactly what she was expecting to happen).  Her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) is more conflicted, concerned for her daughter’s reputation but pragmatic enough to recognise a chance for economic security when she sees it.  Dickens’ behaviour is also cause for concern; in at least one instance, he treats his family in an utterly unconscionable manner.

In a film about an illicit relationship, it is odd that it’s over 70 minutes before we get any sense of passion between the two leads.  Whether this sense of restraint was the choice of Dickens or of Fiennes, I can only guess; either way, it makes this tasteful, well-performed film a colder affair than you feel it should be. – Gareth Negus

The Invisible Woman is due for release in the UK on 7 February 2014.

Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer, 2013)

Cornelia (Luminita Gheourghiou), an exceedingly well connected middle-aged Bucharest architect, married to a successful surgeon, learns at an opera recital one evening that her semi-estranged underachieving son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has struck and killed a child with his car, and is now under arrest at a rural police station. Cornelia and her even more formidable sister steam into the station like avenging angels in furs and pearls, pulling strings and rank on the police officers, who are too disillusioned to be shocked that these people think the rules don’t apply to them.

Netzer’s Golden Bear winner certainly has pedigree. Co- writer Razvan Radulescu wrote The Death of Mr Lazarescu – probably the film that first brought the Romanian new wave to the attention of international audiences, and many of the cast are familiar from the successes that followed. Gheorghiou in particular seems to have been in almost every recent Romanian film that you’ve heard of. Child’s Pose is her big moment with a juicy lead role, and she attacks it with relish, as Cornelia takes on all comers – police, inconvenient witnesses, Barbu’s hated girlfriend  –  to protect her son’s future, even while it mostly seems, for reasons never explained, that he would rather she abandoned him to his fate.

But that’s not how winners roll in the world of Child’s Pose – it’s a dirty, corrupt world, and what’s class privilege for if you can’t assert it? Whether that’s by paying your way out of trouble, or merely apologising for the lives you’ve destroyed and then asserting your place in the moral right? Ultimately, in an emotionally bruising encounter with the dead child’s family, following his mother’s example, this is a lesson Barbu learns, and we’re left to wonder how sincere his contrition is, and what will become of him now he’s learned that lesson.

Child’s Pose is less dry than some of the recent Romanian films we’ve seen – this is nothing like the ultra-deadpan, highly formalist likes of Christi Puiu’s brilliant Lazarescu follow-up Aurora, for example. Netzer’s restless handheld camera observes his actors at close quarters almost throughout – conversation is rarely broken up into shot/reverse shot patterns, instead, the camera hunts nervily between the characters, often changing its mind in mid-move about who to watch, generating a relentless intensity that makes the film an exhausting watch as well as a knotty, unsentimental one. – Indy Datta

Parkland (Peter Landesman, 2013)

I’d probably have a lot more faith in this film if it had been made at almost any other point since 1963.  As it is, it’s clearly – perhaps cynically – timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.  Even then, we can perhaps blame this on the financing choices of film companies, rather than on writer/director Peter Landesman, who may conceivably have wanted to create a film that humanises a pivotal moment in modern American history.

It doesn’t, unfortunately.  Instead, it mostly trots through the events of November 1963 in a fairly hasty, and occasionally ludicrous, manner reminiscent of a TV movie.  Don’t be fooled by the nice costumes and careful use of archive footage – in dramatic terms we’re in on the level not of Mad Men, but Pan Am.

Among the characters we meet are Abraham Zapruder, who shot the famous 8mm footage of the killing; Lee Harvey Oswald and his family; and various doctors and secret service men who couldn’t save the president.  Most get little screen time, giving us a pretty low level of insight into the effects the assassination had on either them, or the nation.  It doesn’t help that we are constantly distracted by familiar faces, with Paul Giamatti and Billy Bob Thornton heading a cast largely composed of himoffs (himoff Smallville, himoff Roswell High, etc).  Some sympathy should go to Kat Steffens who, as Jackie Kennedy, has to do a heroic amount of noble suffering.

A few scenes did provide information new to me, notably the Dallas Medical Examiner’s attempt to keep Kennedy’s body in the city, the murder having taken place in his jurisdiction.  But for the most part, this is no more than an efficient trot through established facts, likely to be most use to American High School history teachers. – Gareth Negus

Parkland is due for release in the UK on Friday 22 November.

The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013)

Everyone knows that Mumbai’s dabawallahs, who have been delivering home-cooked lunches to hundreds of thousands of commuters every day for over a century, famously never deliver to the wrong person, What this film presupposes is… what if they did?

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) discovers that the lunches she has been lovingly preparing in the hope of getting her complacent husband to appreciate her more have been going astray. She starts sending notes in one of the lunchbox compartments, folded in among the chapatis, to the mystery recipient, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), whom we are introduced to as a widowed and friendless government clerk on the verge of early retirement. As the film progresses, the epistolary relationship between the two deepens and starts to vibrate with the potential of the romance that could unstick both their lives.

Batra’s plot conceit works as a nifty analogue twist on the idea that relationships in the contemporary world can form between people who have never physically met, and how potent that can be in places where society is becoming more physically atomised. Megacities like Mumbai are changing the way hundreds of millions of people live, and many are anxious that the social bonds of proximity and family that have defined life in places like India (which is to say, in the end, every place) are stretching and weakening.  Batra’s film conceals a quietly provocative idea under its sentimental, audience-awardsy, crowd-pleasing surface – that urbanisation has been doing this for a century and more, and that we may gain from it as well as lose, because there can be freedom and authenticity in a judicious measure of anonymity.

Ila and Saajan, notably, never tell each other any lies, nobody’s getting catfished here. In their respective “real” lives, on the other hand, both are subject to deceit from people they trust. In Saajan’s case, the deceit ultimately turns out to be benign – the younger man who has been hired to replace him (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), is not who he initially claims to be, but the film ultimately forgives his acts of personal reinvention.

Batra, whose film was developed and funded largely outside India, presents an unsentimental and credible portrait of modern Indian urban life. Visually, the film is straightforward but cleanly constructed, and the lead performances from Khan, Kaur and Siddiqui are uniformly superb. One nice little thing – the characters they play are a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim, something Batra feels no need to comment on at all.  – Indy Datta

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)

We Are the Best! is Lukas Moodysson’s welcome return to the tone of his early successes Show Me Love and Together, before he went all dark and experimental.  Based on a graphic novel by his wife Coco, the film is a slight but light tale of three teenage girls in 1982 Stockholm who decide, pretty much on a whim, to form a punk band.

The main characters are 13-year-old misfits and best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin), united in their love of the punk that their older and wiser classmates insist is dead. In true punk style, they can’t actually play, so decide to recruit the slightly older Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a girl from a Christian family who plays classical guitar. From there, the slightly rambling plot follows their growing if occasionally rocky friendship toward a Christmas performance at the youth centre in a nearby town. This is the moment that, in a conventional movie, would see the band become a runaway word of mouth success. I won’t give away what happens here, but it’s definitely punk.

Though the plot occasionally feels too insubstantial to support the running time, it’s worth it just to spend time with the three leads. They are completely convincing as teenage friends; funny, endearing and infuriating in equal measure (I’d be very interested to know how much of their scenes were scripted, and how much was made up on set or just flat-out improvised). You might feel for their parents and teachers, but you want them to succeed. As in Show Me Love, a lot of the biggest laughs come from incidental details: the curious yet uncomprehending looks of younger siblings looking on, or the attempts by well-meaning yet hopelessly uncool parents to share in their children’s lives.

While the 30-year-old setting and subtitles might put modern teenagers off, I hope they get a chance to see it. Musical styles and fashions change, but the intensity and occasional pain of teenage friendships don’t – something this charming film understands very well. – Gareth Negus

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