Film review: BFI London Film Festival

Given the stated theme of this year's BFI London Film Festival is diversity, proceedings got off to good start this week with the European premiere of Amma Asante's third feature, A United Kingdom(****).

Rosamund Pike (Ruth) and David Oyelowo (Seretse) in A United Kingdon

The film’s depiction of the post-war political furore surrounding the 1947 interracial marriage between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams is a timely and urgent issue movie told with the sweep and grandeur of an old-fashioned love story. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike play the star-crossed lovers: he’s an African prince studying law in London; she’s a typist who shares his love of music.

He’s also heir to the throne of what is now Botswana, so when they get married and plan a return to his homeland of Bechuanaland, they find themselves confronted by prejudice that reaches from the street into the upper echelons of the British establishment.

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Asante – building on her 2013 arthouse hit Belle – smartly filters all this political fall-out through the prism of Seretse and Ruth’s relationship and Oyelowo and Pike generate so much heartfelt chemistry it never feels like we’re being preached at. The result is absorbing mainstream cinema, a great story told with real craft and flair.

Love and race are also at the heart of Moonlight (****), a remarkable drama about a young black American man wrestling with his sexuality in a society already prejudiced against him because of the colour of his skin. A coming-of-age story split into three key points in the protagonist’s life, the film follows Chiron as he negotiates his tricky path through a life further complicated by having a crack-addicted mother (Naomi Harris, doing strong work). Played as a bullied ten-year-old by Alex Hibbert, as an introverted 16-year old by Ashton Sanders, and as a scarred and unsure-of-himself 20-something man by Trevante Rhodes, the character’s progression offers director Barry Jenkins a way to subtly explore the cumulative impact that moments both small and large can have when it comes to shaping a life

One might not think Old Boy director Park Chan-wook would be a natural fit for a big screen version of Sarah Waters’ lesbian-themed, Man Booker-nominated best-seller Fingersmith, but having transposed the action to 1930s South Korea and Japan, The Handmaiden (*****) sees him turn Waters’ Victorian-set novel into a bold, brilliant, beautiful and somewhat bonkers (an octopus does feature) feminist-themed revenge story. Told from multiple perspectives, it’s a story with audacious twists and turns that shouldn’t be spoiled in a review. But Park – returning to his home country after his underrated Hollywood debut Stoker – handles the convoluted tale about a streetwise handmaiden who falls for the mistress she’s supposed to be defrauding with the kind of verve that makes Tarantino’s most recent work so thrilling and unusual.

Also excellent, but for very different reasons, is Manchester by the Sea JJJJJ, the latest from director Kenneth Lonergan. It’s a story about grief and redemption, but it’s told with the same complexity, depth and humour as his debut film, You Can Count On Me. Casey Affleck takes the lead as a troubled man reluctantly forced into becoming a guardian for his 16-year-old nephew following the early death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). From this simple premise Lonergan weaves a wrenching, but frequently funny, drama about the complicated ways tragedy reverberates through the years. Affleck gives the sort of unshowy performance that gradually tears you apart, and there’s a heartbreaking supporting performance from Michelle Williams as his ex-wife, while Lucas Hedges gives a rye, sly, multi-layered performance as his hormonally charged nephew.

A Monster Calls (****) is adapted from Patrick Ness’s fantasy novel of the same name by director JA Bayona. It’s a beautifully rendered story about a bullied, artistically inclined 12-year-old boy called Connor whose imagination conjures up a monstrous-seeming ewe tree (Liam Neeson) to force him to confront his mother’s terminal illness. Mixing animation and heartfelt storytelling, the film features an impressive break-out performance from Edinburgh actor Lewis MacDougall in the central role, who more than holds his own against the likes of Neeson, Felicity Jones (playing his mum) and Sigourney Weaver (playing his stern grandmother).

alistair harkness