London Film Festival 2015 – Day 1

We kick off this year’s coverage in earnest with reviews of tonight’s opening gala film, Suffragette – starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep – Jia Zhangke’s expansive Mountains May Depart, Spanish-Argentinian heartwarmer Truman, and Madame Courage, a tough tale of life on the streets of Algiers.

Suffragette

Suffragette (d. Sarah Gavron, scr. Abi Morgan)

“I hope it’s good”. It’s a familiar refrain to cinemagoers the world over. Before parting with your precious cash, you offer up a silent prayer to whoever tickles your fancy that the film you’ve chosen isn’t a bit of a turd.

It’s something I say to myself, every time I go to the pictures, but I felt it particularly keenly as I sat down to watch Suffragette, tonight’s Opening Night Gala of this year’s London Film Festival. The feeling of heightened concern was because, as with any other film about times of momentous change, you don’t really want to be criticising the soundtrack, or the lighting while wishing you could just find something, anything, positive to say.

Well, in spite of the hope that Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron (they last worked together on Brick Lane) would be a suitably imperious telling of the battle fought by women of all classes and social backgrounds to right a seemingly unthinkable wrong, in fact, it pays neither those women, nor that fight the tribute they deserve.

It’s not particularly easy to put a finger on what’s wrong with Suffragette, all of the performances are fine – Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan are arguably a tick or two better than that, even, the film has an impressive sense of time and place, and certain sequences are effective – the wash-house where Mulligan’s character works is suitably horrific, for example.

But, this is a story of triumph mixed with a continuing battle. The film doesn’t quite identify either of those emotions, and so rather than roused or moved by the injustice of women’s plight then, or now, the audience can go on their way without feeling particularly cajoled or pricked.

It may have been the desire of the filmmakers to ground the film in the ordinary – the battle of a working class woman for equality costs her her home, her son and, frequently her freedom, but the narrowness of the scope feels like a missed opportunity, especially as most of the emotional blows don’t land cleanly.

There is certainly scope for a film about the battle for suffrage, which can transport an audience to a place of righteous anger about prejudice, violence and mistreatment. It would have been wonderful had Suffragette had the elegant power of Ava DuVernay’s Selma from earlier this year, which managed to marry the sins of Alabama in the 1960s with what was going on in Ferguson in 2014.

Whether it’s a lack of ambition from the filmmakers, or a botched execution, Suffragette never gets past being cinematic wallpaper, something that is unlikely to stir up much of the outrage that, frankly, the world needs about women’s rights right now. – Ron Swanson

Mountains May Depart (d. scr. Jia Zhangke)

Mountains May Depart opens in 1999 in Fenyang, northern China, with a peppy group dance sequence, set to the Pet Shop Boys’ version of Go West – the first signal that Jia is not exactly aiming for figurative subtlety in this sweeping generational melodrama set against the background of China’s adoption of capitalism in the last decades, and the next.

Leading the dance is Tao (played by Jia’s wife and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao), followed by her two friends and suitors, honest worker Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and fledgling capitalist Zhang (Yi Zhang).  VW Passat-driving, leather jacket-wearing Zhang disrupts the equilibrium of their threesome by buying the coalmine where Liangzi works as a shift supervisor and offering him a management role, on the condition that he stops seeing Tao, who Zhang intends to propose to. Liangzi angrily rejects the offer and, rejected in turn by Tao, skips town, prompting the first of the film’s headlong leaps into its characters’ futures: cut to Liangzi’s return to Fenyang 15 years later (the final leg of the journey in a VW Passat taxi, in one of the film’s many playful temporal-semiotic juxtapositions) with wife, child and and untreatable case of coalminer’s lung.

MOUNTAINS_MAY_DEPART_still_woman_in_red_jacket

The film’s second jump covers both time and space, finding the divorced Zhang living in lonely beachside luxury in Australia in 2025, unable to relate to his (and Tao’s) son Dollar (here I refer the reader to my earlier note about subtlety), to the extent that they can barely speak the same language.  As the film has progressed, Jia’s frame has become more expansive (moving from 4:3 in 1999 to 2.35:1 in 2025) but his colours have become more muted – just as the lived experience of his characters was more vivid when their horizons were more constricted. The tension between this aesthetic progression and the continuity provided by visual rhymes like the reoccurrence of the Passat (or the canvas backdrop of the Sydney Opera House in front of which Tao and Zhang are photographed for their wedding invitation, a pre-echo of the last act’s Australian setting), and also by the charismatic and dignified central performance by Zhao Tao, typifies the wit, humanity and formal invention Jia has always brought to his films about China’s (and her people’s) continuing great leap into the unknown.

But it is in Australia that humanity, as given particular voice in this latest film by melodrama, unbalances the telling of the tale; and contrivance (that language barrier is not credibly rendered, and is directly responsible for what will probably be the worst line in any film at this year’s festival) and sentimentality (about the past, and the motherland, rendered thuddingly literal when Dollar embarks upon a love affair with an older teacher (Sylvia Chang)who reminds him of his mother, who he hasn’t seen in a decade) prevail over wit, and a certain intangible magic is lost.

Mountains May Depart is Jia Zhangke’s most accessible film, and its ambition is as huge as its heart. It’s hard to argue that it is as fully realised as his best work, but when the film closes, and we return to Tao, half a lifetime after we first met her   but dancing (now alone) to the same song, it’s a moment that lives.  – Indy Datta

Truman (d. scr. Cesc Gay)

The chief pleasure offered by Truman is the opportunity to spend some time in the company of two fine actors on peak form. Javier Cámara is Tomás, an expat laving in Canada who is making a rare trip back to his native Spain to surprise his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darín), a veteran actor who is suffering from terminal cancer and has decided to stop receiving treatment for it. The pair have four days together, during which time they reminisce, make arrangements for the funeral and, most importantly, try to find suitable owners for Truman, the dog that Julián adores. This premise might suggest a maudlin, sentimental tale, but writer/director Cesc Gay keeps the tone light wherever possible and he ensures that all of the characters in the film deal with Julián’s imminent fate with refreshing frankness and maturity. The film is episodic in its construction, but each of these encounters offers us some insight into Julián’s character and his situation; a lunchtime encounter with an old friend whom he once betrayed, for example, or an impromptu trip to Amsterdam that the pair take to see Julián’s son.

This last incident in particular encapsulates the ways Truman so often hits the right note when it would be so easy to take a misstep. The characters consistently attempt to keep their emotions under wraps, which actually allows the film to cut a lot deeper when those barriers are broken down. Julián’s meeting with his son is poignant and perfectly played, but it only becomes more moving in retrospect when an additional piece of information is revealed in a later scene. Gay’s direction is unfussy and geared towards giving the actors all the space and time they need, although perhaps it was a fear of Darín overshadowing his co-stars that prompted him to give Tomás a romantic subplot with Dolores Fonzi. This decision is a mistake that feels out of place and marks one of the film’s few stumbles. I wonder if such flaws would be ironed out in a remake? Truman certainly seems like an ideal candidate to be reworked in the US, and the role of a dying ex-heartthrob who loves his dog would surely be catnip to the Academy. – Philip Concannon

Madame Courage (d. scr. Merzak Allouache)

Algerian veteran Allouache’s film starts kinetically and arrestingly, with its wiry young protagonist Omar (Adlane Jemil) snatching a treasured necklace from a girl laughing in a group of friends (Selma, played by Lamia Bezouaoui) and then, after seeing her again coincidentally, resolving to return it to her, following her all the way across the city before confronting her and wordlessly returning the jewellery.

From here, Allouache broadens out the scope of Omar’s world – from his dependence on the muscle relaxant drug Artane whose street name gives the film its title, to the life of petty street crime he lives to finance his habit, and his fraught relationship with his slum-dwelling mother and sister, the latter of whom webcams for money under the strictures of a thuggish local pimp who supplies her with a laptop. What he fails to do is expand his film into the realm of Omar’s interior world – there’s no credible sense that Omar’s subsequent obsession with Selma (he stalks her to school, and sleeps in the street outside her house until her cop brother sends him packing with a beating) has any function beyond the extension of the film to feature length.

Omar’s exterior world is well-enough captured, in industry-standard  arthouse modes, relying heavily on the follow from behind most commonly associated with the Dardenne Brothers, but there’s little of the telling detail in the story that would differentiate the film’s Algiers from Mumbai, say, or Rio – so ultimately its depiction of hardscrabble urban life in the unrich world feels as much like world cinema cliché as the picturesque suffering-peasant movies of earlier eras. – Indy Datta

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