Seeing Gerard Butler giving a good performance in a decent movie is one of the nicest surprises of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. In the Scottish-set The Vanishing (****), he stars alongside Peter Mullan and newcomer Connor Swindells as one of three lighthouse keepers presented with a moral dilemma when a body and a case of gold wash up a few weeks into a six-week shift. Inspired by the never-resolved disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides in 1900, the film takes its time establishing the characters, then revels in depicting their collective unravelling as the course of action they decide to follow brings infinitely more trouble than the gold is worth.
What follows is hardly ground-breaking, but Danish filmmaker Kristoffer Nyholm (making his feature debut after helming hit TV shows such as The Killing and Taboo) directs with chilly efficiency and Butler digs deep to get beyond the gruff action-man machismo that’s become his default setting in recent years.
There are more surprises in Border (****), a strange Swedish drama about a seemingly disfigured customs officer (Eva Melander) who’s ability to smell shame makes her extremely good at her job. Adapted from a novella by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, the film has some fairly outré twists up its sleeve, though writer/director Ali Abbasi does such a fine job of rooting his protagonist’s otherness in a realistic setting that even when he starts incrementally weaving in more fantastical elements, the story always feels plausible. Indeed it almost works better as an allegory for marginalisation than as the genre film it transforms into.
Proving that genre elements aren’t always necessary to effectively explore feelings of isolation and otherness, Girl (***) serves up a sensitive coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old transgender girl (Victor Polster) intent on becoming a professional ballerina. Directed by Flemish filmmaker Lukas Dhont, the film is playing as part of the GFF’s showcase on Belgian cinema and it’s not hard to detect the influence of the country’s most revered filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers, in Dhont’s film, particularly as he presents the world entirely from its introspective protagonist’s point of view. Be warned, the harshness of the ending feels a little unearned, but this is a promising debut nonetheless.
Although cinematography apparently isn’t a glamorous enough job for the Oscars to honour in its live broadcast this weekend (the cinematography award will be handed out during the ad breaks), any actual film lovers can honour the profession by checking out Living The Light – Robby Müller (*****), a documentary-cum-poetic-cine-essay on the titular cameraman who sadly died last year, but whose work for the likes of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier is among the best ever committed to film. Compiling it mostly from Müller’s own archives (he never stopped shooting), director Claire Pijman smartly lets her subject’s images do most of the talking. The result is a majestic insight into a much misunderstood craft. - Alistair Harkness
Glasgow Film Festival runs until 3 March. For tickets and information, visit www.glasgowfilm.org/festival