As I write this, I will have officially passed the halfway mark of my time here at the London Film Festival. It’s been a relentlessly busy one so far, although things thankfully/weirdly opt to slow down in this second week – less Press screenings, less big clashes, less non-sold out Public screenings that I can’t charm my way into. Still, such busyness merely speaks to the strength of the line-up this year, enough so that a shortened highlights piece such as this doesn’t do full justice to the breadth of films and consistent quality on display. As always, you can find full-length write-ups of every film over at my personal website as well as that of our very own Kelechi Ehenulo who got to spend Sunday dinnertime sat 20 feet awsy from Michael B. Jordan, the lucky so-and-so.
As for disappointments which have nothing to do with my unquenched thirst, none have been greater than the fact that Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is kind of a mess. The much-vaunted anti-hate satire turns out to not be particularly satirical at all, being more of a standard coming-of-age tale that just so happens to have many of its principal players be Hitler fanatics and whilst that sounds like a killer hook, Waititi doesn’t make much use of it. His film prioritises fuzzy feelings above all else, meaning the film has no teeth, satirical or otherwise. Strip out the overt jokes and you basically have a straightforward piece of WWII Germany-set Oscar Bait.
And, look, I’m not docking Jojo points for it being a much tamer and genial movie than I was expecting. Vicious bite has never been Waititi’s thing. But far more troublingly, aside from the fact that the film resultantly has tonal issues which prove untenable by the arrival of the closing third, is that Jojo‘s rigid adherence to structure and fuzziness causes Waititi to actively reign himself in. One of our most delightfully and proudly off-beat oddball creatives has, once you take out the distinctive visual style and the imaginary Hitler, made a movie that could’ve come from any number of other directors. There’s no risk, no surprising upending of convention like in, say, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The giant micromanaged tentpole Marvel movie he just came from was more Waititi than this ever is, save for one all-timer of a payoff! So whilst it looks brilliant, has great performances (particularly Thomasin McKenzie and newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), is admittedly quite funny and goes down smoothly, I can’t help but be let down. I expected more.
One thing I definitely didn’t expect was Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, the next great horror movie and one hell of a debut feature. If Paul Schraeder had written a 60s Roman Polanski movie (specifically a mix of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), then it would probably be something like this. An absolutely revelatory Morfydd Clark plays the titular Maud, a lonely private care nurse who has recently converted to Catholicism, has orgasmic one-sided conversations with God, and is concerned by her lack of purpose in life until thrust into the charge of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a paralysed former dancer dying from spinal lymphoma whom Maud sees as a lost soul in need of saving.
Is Maud having a psychotic break, is she possessed by divine spirits or something much uglier? The journey towards an answer is an unbearably tense one drenched in gothic atmosphere, Glass displaying the kind of virtuoso control of encroaching tension which takes other directors decades to master that recalls nothing less than Ari Aster’s similar instant mastery with Hereditary. Although it’s been picked up in the US by A24, this isn’t going to lead to any tiresome debates about whether or not Saint Maud is a horror; the visceral unease evident from frame one building and building to an audacious final act which sets the film ablaze and brings all that accumulated tension rushing out in full-force. And Clark is legitimately a revelation in the title role, an immediate all-timer of a horror protagonist performance playing audience sympathies like a symphony orchestra. A debut which almost never puts a foot wrong and a final pair of cuts that have haunted me in the days since viewing, Saint Maud is a classic in waiting and forcibly puts Glass’s name on all the radars going forward.
READ MORE: Joker – Review
Speaking of A24 and horror, be prepared for general audience riots because Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, his highly-anticipated follow-up to 2016’s The VVitch, despite its atmospheric 4:3 black-and-white expressionistic German horror-evoking visual style (plus the visions of mermaids and Poseidon) is not actually a horror movie. What Eggers has done for his sophomore feature is make a deliberate dark psychosexual comedy about how much being around somebody you hate and who hates you is an intolerable ballache. It is, quite frankly, an utter riot, like if Darren Aronofsky’s mother! cut the pretentious bullshit about religion and climate change and just admitted that it was a darkly fun comedy about how annoying it is to be stuck in a house with strangers who just won’t leave. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are both excellent and clearly have a whale of a time chewing into some scenery, the visual and sound designs are top-notch, and there’s a tangible streak of homoeroticism running underneath that Eggers leans into which I appreciated. Great fun, I had a ball!
On the subject of great fun – look at these transitions, killing it on that front today – Our Ladies is a Scottish teen-girl coming-of-age dramedy by Michael Caton-Jones I was forced into after being too late for my initial choice in that screening block but came out of in high spirits pleasantly surprised! Caton-Jones’ adaptation of a 1998 novel (originally called The Sopranos, can’t imagine why they changed the changed it) about six choirgirls at a Catholic school in a Scottish port-town doesn’t re-invent any wheels for this kind of movie – in fact, much of its premise and beats also turned up in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart five months ago – but it executes the fundamentals with joie de vivre and great skill. The script is witty and outstandingly delivered by the young cast, touching on class differences and sex without being particularly judgemental, with believable group dynamics and several great comic setpieces which manage to overcome the otherwise Channel 4 direction on display. I’m a sucker for this kind of film anyway, especially one with Mazzy Star jokes that I want the filmmakers to know at least one person (this person typing these words) appreciated, but Our Ladies is still a winning feel-good time regardless of my personal biases.
READ MORE: Suspiria (2018) – DVD Review
Similarly winning although not feel-good by any stretch of the definition is Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, the semi-autobiographical story of writer and star Shia LaBeouf’s abusive, destructive relationship with his father and the lasting psychological damage caused for later in life. Lucas Hedges plays Otis (a.k.a. Definitely Not Shia) in 2005, an utterly outstanding Noah Jupe plays Otis’ 1995 self, and LaBeouf plays the boy’s father. This all may sound like a gimmicky exercise in art-as-therapy, but whilst the meta-textual aspect is certainly inextricable from the movie as a whole, Honey Boy absolutely works. Part of that is because of the towering two-hander performance team of LaBeouf and Jupe, part of that is due to Har’el’s alternately tender and showy direction striking just the right notes, but mainly it’s from how the film functions as a touching rejection of the bullshit perversions of method acting and trauma fuelling art that LaBeouf himself used to traffic in. An ode to forgiveness, if not of the trauma then at least of the self in response to it, in a manner which breaks the cycle of generational abuse. In that respect, it’s a companion piece to Waves from earlier in the Fest and is similarly fantastic.
You can follow our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2019 here.