This year’s London Film Festival features some provocative new work, writes Alistair Harkness
THE 56th BFI London Film festival draws to a close this weekend and while this year’s programme, the first under new festival director Claire Stewart, has been more streamlined than in years past – 12 days compared to the usual 16 – it has extended its reach to far more venues across London. The upshot of this is that I haven’t had to watch a single film in Leicester Square’s Vue multiplex, by some stretch the worst cinema in London. Film-wise, though, things have felt pretty much like business as usual, with a traditional array of big name premieres – Ben Affleck’s Argo and The King’s Speech wannabe Hyde Park on Hudson (starring Bill Murray as Franklyn D Roosevelt) – adding star lustre, and a broad mix of indie films, screen talks and potential awards contenders making the LFF once again seem like a greatest hits package of the year’s other big festivals.
That makes trend spotting tricky, but outsiders and old age seem to have dominated a number of the films I’ve seen. In the former category, Simon Killer has been the highlight, and is certainly the strongest fiction film I’ve seen at this year’s festival. Directed by Antonio Campos (whose debut Afterschool played here to great acclaim four years ago), it’s the latest from Campos’s tight-knit production company Borderline Films, which last year launched creative partner Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene here. Like that film, it stars Brady Corbet and finds him on even more disturbing form as an American tourist called Simon who has retreated to Paris to get over a bad break-up but finds himself instead embarking on a transgressive downward spiral, the outcome of which can be guessed from the title.
Essentially an unflinching portrait of a young man giving in to some deep-rooted sociopathic tendencies, the film deploys a rigorously formal shooting style that helps makes Simon simultaneously a figure of fascination and someone from whom you just want to recoil. It’s an intense, uncomfortable film, but also another bold, brilliantly provocative shot in the arm for American independent cinema and a sign that something special is happening among this specific group of filmmakers.
Similarly provocative is West of Memphis, a meticulously researched investigation into a horrendous miscarriage of justice that led to three teenage heavy metal fans being convicted of the brutal slaying of three prepubescent kids in West Memphis in 1993. With the case already well-documented in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s astonishing Paradise Lost documentary trilogy (the final instalment of which was Oscar-nominated early this year), I had my doubts going in that this Peter Jackson-produced documentary would have much to add, but Amy Berg’s film is a sobering, In Cold Blood-esque piece of investigative filmmaking that not only serves as a searing indictment of a corrupt legal system, but uncovers a credible suspect for the real killer, as well as providing a moving insight into the way those wrongly convicted of the crime – chief among them Damien Echols – have evolved over the years. It’s a remarkable story that the best crime writers would struggle to make up.
The passage of time and the debilitating effect it has on the mind and the body is very much at the heart of Michael Haneke’s latest, Amour. As is customary for a Haneke film, audiences are clearly supposed to cower before his bullying brilliance and accept the fact they’re about to be brutalised. But as with the vastly over-rated The White Ribbon, the punishment dished out by Amour isn’t offset by any genuine insight. Exploring in detail the slow deterioration of an elderly woman after a series strokes (as well as the attendant and devastating effect this has on her husband), it’s another uncompromising film with nothing to say.
It’s a toss-up as to whether that’s preferable to Quartet, though, which operates at the opposite end of the spectrum by exploring old age in the same kind of broad, patronising tone that won The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the recent Hope Springs large box-office grosses and baffling amounts of critical acclaim. Notable largely for being Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut (he doesn’t feature), this British-set tale revolving around the residents of a retirement home for opera stars, features one grace-saving performance from Tom Courtenay, but mostly features veteran Brit thesps like Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith giving some of their worst performances. It’s not their fault, though. Answering an unrelated question at the press conference afterwards an uncharacteristically quiet Hoffman claimed that one of the things his years of experience have taught him is that whenever you see bad acting on screen it’s generally always the fault of the director. Well, at least he knows.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
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Wind direction: North east