What You Need to See at the BFI London Film Festival 2018
From Chloë Sevigny’s take on the Lizzie Borden axe murders to Mike Leigh's 'Peterloo', here are six picks you shouldn't miss.
Images all courtesy of BFI London Film Festival.
The summer blockbusters have come and gone, and Christmas remakes are a couple months off, which means one thing: it's film festival season.
The BFI London Film Festival began in the 1950s as a rainier version of Cannes or Venice, and was supposed to provide an opportunity to see films that might not get a UK screening. Variety is the aim, with the festival showcasing more than 300 films, documentaries and shorts from all over the globe every year. Sure, it's mostly populated by industry sorts and fresh-out-of-uni film bloggers, but in actuality is very much a public affair.
If you’re a normie filmgoer who just wants to know they'll get something excellent for their £7 entrance fee, these are all the new films we think you should see. Bonus: even if you can’t make it to London for the festival, they’re all set for relatively wide release, so will likely be at a screen near you at some point in the near future.
Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. So goes the folklore rhyme about the legendary 1982 case of Lizzie Borden.
Lizzie Borden was notorious in America as the main suspect, later acquitted, in the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts. The gothic tale has been rehashed numerous times in pop culture – Christina Ricci played Borden in a Lifetime movie, and the figure was fictionalised in an Angela Carter short story, to name two examples – and Chloë Sevigny's cinematic take is the latest, the actor-director having worked on the passion project since 2010.
Lizzie focuses on the days leading up to the brutal crimes: the oppressive patriarchal rules, abusive undertones and the sexual relationship Borden (Sevigny) secretly develops with Bridget Sullivan, an Irish maid played by Kristen Stewart. The magic of the film is in its quietness and tension, the seen and unseen, the smothering cinematography and shallow focus shots of the pair.
12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn feel like the sort of Fantasy Filmmaking League pairing that you conceived of in a particularly good dream, only to wake up sweaty and disappointed. Fortunately, fast-paced thriller Widows – the 2018 London Film Festival's opening film – has come along to make a collaboration between the two a reality.
Based on the iconic 1980s British TV series of the same title (itself written by legendary crime author Lynda La Plante), Widows follows a group of wives who attempt to commit a robbery after their criminal husbands are killed. And though that might feel like intriguing but fairly typical heist movie fodder, Widows comes at the subject matter with nuance: indeed, LFF artistic director Tricia Tuttle says it's "scintillatingly rich storytelling from a magnificent filmmaker, probing issues around race, class and gender, while always delivering immense style and crackingly sharp thrills".
This version of the story gets a contemporary update, set in present-day Chicago, though McQueen’s quick, gritty direction captures the maximalism and bombast of the source material. With central performances by big names like Viola Davies, Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson – all of whom excel within the crime drama format – sweetening the deal even further, Widows promises to be a total crowd-pleaser.
"We must break the nose of every beautiful thing," Madame Blanc tells Susie Bannon, a young dancer from a religious family who has come to join her prestigious dance school. This sinister line rings through Suspiria, increasingly true with every act.
After Susie (Dakota Johnson) gets in, what transpires is that this school is a front for a coven of witches. This isn't a remake of Dario Argentino's classic; instead, Guadagnino (director of Call Me By Your Name) describes it as a "homage" inspired by his teenage experience of watching Argentino's version.
Early reviews have suggested that this lavish and indulgent version misses out on much of the freakiness of the original, but still, the cast is unparalleled – Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz – and this is, likely, after Hereditary, the next successful horror release of the year. No doubt plenty of 20-somethings will want to see what Guadagnino does next, after breaking their hearts in Italy this time last year.
MAKE ME UP
Scottish artist Rachel Maclean brings a timely critique of the art world to the table with her film Make Me Up, which will open the LFF's "Experimenta" strand. Described as feminist science fiction, the film takes place in a futuristic dystopia where surveillance is king and beauty standards are sky high.
We follow Siri and Alexa as they’re made over in a beauty clinic chaired by Figurehead – played by Maclean – who attempts to indoctrinate them and their fellow residents with ideals about femininity taken from traditional art criticism (in particular, from Kenneth Clark and the 1960s BBC television series Civilisation). Reflecting on Make Me Up’s production, Maclean described it as "an exploration of both the achievements and the complications of contemporary feminism", noting that "the process of making the film has allowed me personally to reinvestigate how strikingly present women are in images and sculptures, yet how absent they are as voices or agents in art production".
It's a topic that feels all too prescient right now in our current feminist moment (discussed, too, by Hannah Gadsby’s uncompromising and high profile Netflix one-off Nanette), and Maclean's candy-coloured nightmare of a fable feels like a great, thought-provoking way to keep the discussion going.
Mike Leigh has complained that Peterloo is not sufficiently taught in schools. Amid lessons about Henry the 8th and WWII, it's true that the average Brit knows little about what is often referred to as Britain's Tiananmen Square. Leigh grew up near the site where, in 1819, peaceful protesters demanding freedom from poverty and political reform were stormed by cavalry. Eighteen were killed and 650 injured, making it the bloodiest political clash in British history.
"In the end, why is the film still relevant?" Leigh said recently. "Many reasons. One of them being the difference between those who have and those who don't have. Those who have power and those who don’t. Those who have wealth and those who are on the breadline."
In many ways, the Peterloo Massacre – as it has come to be known – feels like it echoes modern concerns, modern tragedies. As such, the event is the inspiration for beloved British director Mike Leigh’s newest film, which will have its UK premiere in Manchester in conjunction with the LFF, followed two days later by a London screening. While the historical genre isn’t what Leigh is best known for, the crux of the story – ordinary people with the status quo of governments and large institutions bearing down on them – is absolutely his wheelhouse. Films like this feel like what the London Film Festival exists to showcase. The overall result is a relentlessly serious and frequently brutal film, nevertheless immensely important and rewarding for those eager to return to class.
If you’re in the market for a trip deep into your feelings this festival season, Beautiful Boy might be a good place to start. Based on a pair of bestselling memoirs by father and son Nic and David Sheff, the film deals with the impacts of drug addiction not only on sufferers, but also on their families. Distributed by Amazon Studios, Beautiful Boy boasts a cast headed up by Oscar nominees Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. As such, it's abuzz with awards chat, in particular for Chalamet – who proves once again, in an emotionally challenging role, that he’s one of the most sensitive young actors around right now.
Speaking to the specificity of playing an actual person rather than a fictional character, and to the collaborative nature of the production (owing to the crucial central chemistry between himself and Carell), Chalamet recently told Entertainment Weekly, "With high emotional family stakes at play, you feel a responsibility to the actual story," adding: "We tried to capture someone in the throes of addiction, caught between, addled." It’s easy for Recovery Movies™ to feel formulaic and even trite, but Beautiful Boy – directed by Felix Van Groeningen, making his English language debut – has been praised for its frankness, and its willingness to confront important but difficult realities.
Lords of Chaos
Set in Norway – a country that according to guitarist Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin) is known for “seal clubbing and a very high suicide rate” – Lord of Chaos is a dramady about the Norweigan black metal scene, and Euronymous’s key part in it. Director Jonas Åkerlund knows a lot about this scene, having been in the metal band Bathory in the early 80s. At first Euronymous’s band are…not great. They quickly improve and on the way we see metalheads attack the church, wear a lot of corpse paint, and do the occasional murder. It’s dark and twisted, certainly, but critics so far have agreed the result is “tremendous fun”.
I Used To Be Normal
Often stories of boyband fandom are dominated by younger teens, those who have just fallen in love with musicians. Jessica Leski’s film I Used To Be Normal pushes against that by documenting a diverse range of fans from across the globe and perhaps most interestingly over three generations. A highlight is the Beatles fan – a woman who has hoarded a collection of merch from across the decades, and tells of how the band helped her through a dark period of her teen life. With the wealth of footage of fangirls from across the decades and tears and laughter of girls and women in the present day interviews, this promises to be a feel good remediation for heavier docs in the festival.
For more information on the BFI LFF 2018 programme and tickets go here.