The surprising thing about Elstree 1976 (****), which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this past weekend, is its ability to tell a side of the story hitherto unexplored on film.
Where documentaries such as The People vs George Lucas have comprehensively examined the masochistic relationship fans have with the saga and its creator, Jon Spira’s film – the title is a reference to the British studio and the year in which the majority of the first film was shot – unearths a subset of people whose lives were unexpectedly affected by the success of the films in a more direct way, thanks to being cast in minor (and sometimes not so minor) roles.
A veritable Rogue Squadron of Zeiligs, the assembled interviewees range from the guy who played the Storm Trooper who was Jedi-mind-tricked by Obi-wan Kenobi in Mos Eisley, to better-known members of the helmeted cast, such as Darth Vader actor David Prowse. Regardless of their actual visibility in Star Wars, however – or their standing on the lucrative convention circuit that has sprung up around the saga – their individual stories prove equally moving as they reckon with the complicated ups and downs of having been involved in arguably the biggest movie ever made.
Having broken through earlier this year with his third feature, Listen Up Philip, writer/director Alex Ross Perry establishes himself as one of the most intriguing voices on the US indie scene with his new film Queen of Earth (****).
Once again starring Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss (she played Jason Schwartzman’s long-suffering girlfriend in Philip), the film, which premiered here last night, is a darkly funny and increasingly disturbing portrait of a young woman’s descent into madness after the traumatic loss of her artist father. This is Catherine (Moss), a painter in her own right who retreats to the lakeside holiday home of her best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterson) to recover from the loss of her father and her recent break-up with her co-dependent boyfriend.
Though set up as a 1970s-style drama – complete with retro titles and hazy cinematography – what happens next defies easy summation, as the film cuts between the present day and a similar trip taken one year earlier. Ross Perry has a remarkable ability to put us inside the head of his protagonist, letting us see how her apparently rapid unraveling (the film takes place over a few days) is actually the result of a gradual deterioration that may have been taking place over Catherine’s entire life.
The results are creepy and strange – and Moss is magnificent, subtly tracking Catherine’s escalating neuroses in ways that avoid cliché.