A baseball analogy may not be the most appropriate way to begin a round-up of the BFI London Film Festival, but it’s been heartening to see British filmmakers really swinging for the fences this year. Joanna Hogg certainly hit it out of the park with The Souvenir Part II (*****), her follow-up to 2019’s arthouse hit fictionalising her early years as a fledgling filmmaker in 1980s London.
Once again starring Honour Swinton Byrne as Hogg’s inscrutable film-student alter-ego, Julia, it’s a wonderfully inventive piece of auto-fiction that allows Hogg to skewer artistic pretension and class tension while sincerely grappling with the creative possibilities of the art form. It’s also pretty funny, with layers of meta-gags courtesy of Tilda Swinton’s return as Julia’s artistically dissatisfied mother (Swinton Byrne is Swinton’s real-life daughter) and Richard Ayoade reprising his role as a hotshot filmmaker shooting an Absolute Beginners-style musical. But it’s the fearless way Hogg transforms the finale into an extended ode to the films of Powell and Pressburger that makes it special.
The Souvenir Part II would actually have made an intriguing double bill with Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (***), a full-tilt horror movie that also happens to be about a young, unsure-of-herself student struggling to find her creative voice in the heart of London.
Serving up a kind of Giallo-inflected spin on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the conceit of having a swinging-sixties-obsessed fashion student (Thomasin Mackenzie) discovering a dangerous dimension to her nostalgia gives the first half a dreamy, unsettling in quality that’s as good as anything Wright has done. But the film – co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns – becomes a more conventional ghost story as it progresses. No home run, then, but very stylish and entertaining nonetheless.
By contrast the Kristen Stewart-starring Princess Diana movie Spencer (****) was a home run and, weirdly, proved oddly effective as a horror movie. That’s perhaps because Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Jackie) and Brit screenwriter Steven Knight (Locke) seem to have taken their cues from The Shining rather than The Crown. Presenting Sandringham as a gilded cage where the past and the present are the same thing and the “future doesn’t exist”, it’s like a royal riff on the Overlook Hotel, with Timothy Spall on sinister form as an all-seeing footman intent on correcting Diana, and Stewart great at walking the fine line between high camp and poignant drama. Johnny Greenwood’s atonal score and the Christmas-with-the-in-laws setting adds to the freaky vibe.
There was a freaky vibe in Bull (****) too, a blistering return to form from London to Brighton director Paul Andrew Williams. Neil Maskell is at his most intense as a violent criminal out for vengeance against his in-laws (lead by a menacing David Haymen) and though it’s forcefully enough directed to work as a straight-up revenge movie, Williams takes a swing at something much weirder with a final act wig-out that delivers something more akin to contemporary classics such as Dead Man’s Shoes and Kill List.
Of course when you swing for the fences sometimes you strike out, which unfortunately was the case with debut British director Jeymes Samuel, whose gonzo western The Harder They Fall (**) opened the festival. A garbled tale about a ruthless outlaw (Jonathan Majors) bent on killing the man (Idris Elba) responsible for murdering his parents, it’s like a sub-Tarantino mishmash of extreme violence and offbeat humour. That said, a couple of sequences (one involves a jailbreak on a train, the other a sly nod to High Plains Drifter) do suggest Samuel could be a filmmaker to watch.
The BFI London Film Festival runs until 17 October with select screenings at Filmhouse Edinburgh, Glasgow Film Theatre and online at www.bfi.org.uk/lff
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