As has been my custom for the previous three Octobers, I am once again back here in London for the next fortnight to cover the BFI London Film Festival. We got a lot on our plate and so, to adjust to the manic schedule and large workload, this year I’ll be writing short sharp synopses for Set the Tape rather than multi-page diaries or full reviews and these will be arriving in bursts like these throughout my time down South. Fans of more longform and daily work, however, can trot on over to my personal website or to our own Kelechi Ehenulo at her personal website.
And it didn’t take long to find my first total dud of the Festival; second screening overall, in fact. Jessica Hausner’s sci-fi horror dramedy Little Joe is an intolerable assault on the senses, not least of all in its awful scraping piercing sound design which is meant to set viewers on edge but in reality just gets under one’s skin in the worst most painful way. And the film itself is not much better, as Emily Beecham’s team of plant scientists attempt to genetically engineer a plant which makes its owners happier but in doing so effectively insidiously lobotomises the recipients of its pheromones in a blunt smug metaphor for anti-depressants.
Hausner’s film fails on almost every level it sets out to try. The existential horror lands with a total thud because nobody in this movie behaves or speaks like an understandable or three-dimensional human being even before the mutant plant spores start mulching away a person’s cognitive behavioural functions, so the growing oppressive weirdness doesn’t land due to not perverting any normalcy. The bursts of comedy have no rhythm to them, all bluntly and flatly delivered and cynically expecting intentional laughter in the same way crap B-movies genuinely elicit unintentional laughter. The character drama is simplistic, uninteresting and at odds with the presented satirical metaphor. Whilst the sci-fi has a total of two overlapping buttons – ANTI-DEPRESSANTS ARE BAD, WE MUST NOT TAMPER IN GOD’S DOMAIN – which are evident from frame one and left to stagnate until its very last. And she has the gall to play this extremely boring highly-predictable Body Snatchers by way of The Happening riff at an ultra slow burn despite the payoff being limp and insubstantial. Looks nice, though.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
By contrast, The Personal History of David Copperfield, the Festival’s Opening Gala and the third film by Armando Iannucci. A film which, at a glance, seems like a wild departure for the man who brought us In the Loop, Death of Stalin and so many other bitterly cynical and fiercely relevant TV shows over the decades. But Charles Dickens always had a very liberal and rather cheeky social and class-focussed satirical streak running through his work, whilst Iannucci proudly proclaimed in his post-screening Q&A that he is an optimist at heart, so the two make for far more befitting bedfellows than one may realise. Iannucci, along with regular co-writer Simon Blackwell, brings the satire underpinning the story of a precocious gentleman (Jairaj Varsani as a child, Dev Patel as an adult) who falls into and out of misfortune and ruin multiple times over his life up to date, drawing modern parallels without overdoing it or losing the 1800s Dickensian wit and feel of the original text.
Dickens’ source material, for its part, encourages Iannucci to be bolder and more openly cinematic for the first time in his directorial career, abandoning the cinema-verité style he’d utilised in prior films for expansive period vistas with long lenses, artful usage of soft focus, and intermittent playing with the boundaries and realities of Copperfield’s tale in a manner which recalls Paul King’s work on the Paddington duology. The comedy is obviously extremely well-staged and hilariously executed, a murderer’s row of British comic talent like Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Iannucci regular Peter Capaldi ensuring this is one breezily humorous film. The drama, however, is a little lacking, the downside of turning a door-stopper serial collection into a two-hours-dead meaning the last third has to be all plot and the emotional resonance of events like Steerforth’s depression don’t sing like they want to. But the film goes down easy and satisfactorily regardless, a welcome blast of hopefulness chased with just enough acidity, and it demonstrates Iannucci to be a restless creative clearly eager to push himself rather than rest on his laurels.
The exact tonal opposite of David Copperfield‘s breezy whimsy, Chinonye Chukwu’s Grand Jury Prize-winning Clemency is an absolutely crushing exploration of the death penalty and all-destroying effect it has upon everybody tasked with shouldering its burden. Brimming with palpable authenticity, Chukwu’s film avoids a didactic ethics debate by instead exploring the psychological toll that the practice has upon everyone involved in it, from Aldis Hodges’ executee-to-be to Alfre Woodard’s outwardly-removed yet internally-demolished warden. Their performances are outstanding and Chukwu’s direction is assured with a smothering tone which is all about forcing the viewer to grapple with the weight of the material, but I found myself so crushed by it all that I ran the risk of becoming emotionally numb by the conclusion.
It probably didn’t help Clemency‘s case in that arena, however, that I saw it a little over two hours after Trey Edward Shults’ masterful emotional wringer Waves. A personal epic charting the lead up to a catastrophic tragedy and the painful, often unstable efforts of those affected by its ripples to pull themselves back together again, Shults’ latest is extremely difficult to talk about without giving the game away – something which I daren’t spoil, even as I fear saying that there is something to spoil spoils the experience anyway, for the horrific chill it sent through my audience of fellow critics – so you must just trust me when I say that it’s one of the year’s best films. Shaggy and exhausting it may be, but this is a movie full of hope and optimism despite its events, directed and visualised with what at times amounts to a music video-esque synesthesia, with a preternatural balancing of an extremely fragile tone and star-making performances by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell. Although I haven’t said much here, trust me when I say it may be one of the absolute best things I see all fortnight.
And then there’s Monos, Alejandro Landes’ lean, mean thriller about a squadron of child soldiers somewhere in Latin America who gradually fall apart at the seams. Narratively, it’s a fairly boilerplate Lord of the Flies takeoff with the bare minimum of character work required to distinguish the eight teens from each other (and even then barely). But in terms of atmosphere and mood, it is oppressively intoxicating. Jasper Wolf’s cinematography is beautifully grimy and grim, finding artful ways to stage pulse-pounding chases and tense often-non-verbal exchanges without sacrificing the intensity of the action itself, ala Roger Deakins in Skyfall and Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama. And Mica Levi’s score, in stark contrast to the sound on Little Joe, is absolutely to die for, oppressive and unsettling without becoming painful to listen to. Monos is admittedly slow to start, but when it descends into the Apocalypse Now-reminiscent jungle the film never lets up until a haunting final cut to black.
READ MORE: VIFF 2019 – Week One Round-Up
You can follow our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2019 here.