If this year’s BFI London Film Festival got off to a conventional start earlier this week with true-life tear-jerker Breathe (***), Andy Serkis’s directorial debut also showcased something that has been self-evident from his pioneering motion-capture work as an actor in The Lord of the Rings films, King Kong and the recent Planet of the Apes series: his talent for getting to the truth of a character regardless of their physical presentation on screen. Breathe tells the the story of Robin Cavendish, a polio sufferer paralysed from the neck-down by the disease at a time (the 1950s) when being being hooked up to a ventilator and effectively imprisoned on a hospital ward was the best most sufferers could hope for. Yet in focusing on the way he refused to be constrained by the condition — inventing technology to get him mobile and inventing a future for himself in the process — the film gets beyond the standard inspirational biopic template in interesting ways.
Played by Andrew Garfield, Robin (the father of the film’s producer Jonathan Cavendish) is prostrate for much of the movie, but in the spirit of the story, Garfield’s performance isn’t restricted by the physical limitations imposed on him. We get a full sense of a life being lived to the full and Serkis - who played polio sufferer Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll a few years ago — develops this into a film about someone who became pioneer for disabled rights as a result.
On the subject of pioneers, Battle of the Sexes (*****), which has its premiere here tonight, brilliantly dramatises tennis legend Billy Jean King’s historic exhibition match with former Wimbledon champion, and self-styled chauvinist, Bobby Riggs. Using the hoopla surrounding the 1973 match to illustrate how King (a top-of-her-game Emma Stone) changed the sport for the better by campaigning for equal pay for women while simultaneously coming to terms with her sexuality, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) do a magnificent job of teasing out complex themes in the framework of a crowd-pleasing sports film. It’s the first great film about tennis and Steve Carell is perfectly cast as Riggs, finding real depth beneath his clownish persona.
Also very good is A Fantastic Woman (****) a moving Chilean drama about a trans woman (trans actress Daniela Vega) dealing with the prejudices of her recently deceased partner’s family. A subtly instructive film about the need for society at large to recognise the world is changing, it handles the story without resorting to didacticism and Vega - who’s starting to be talked up as a potential awards contender — more than lives up to her character’s titular billing.
Ingrid Goes West (****), meanwhile, offers Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza her best film role to date as a pathological woman who becomes obsessed with a social media celebrity (Elizabeth Olsen) whose aspirational lifestyle she wants for herself. Riffing on the likes of Single White Female and The King of Comedy, it’s both a sly satire and skin-crawling exploration of narcissism in the Instagram age and Plaza expertly negotiates a tricky role.