The 52nd London Film Festival has come to an end with a rather less glamorous premiere than in previous years. That’s not to say that Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was not worthy of the honour of bringing the event to a close. Far from it.
His frenetic and eye-opening tale of an uneducated teenager from the slums of Mumbai, who powers his way through question after question on India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, is a surprisingly thrilling love story, complete with police torture and gangsters.
But from the point of view of a red-carpet extravaganza, with the glitz and glamour of last year’s star-studded The Darjeeling Limited, there’s not one actor here who would turn heads outside West Yorkshire.
Two weeks earlier, the Festival kicked off with the higher profile Frost/Nixon, one of two bio-pics about controversial American presidents. Ron Howard’s festival opener featured Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, reprising their roles from Peter Morgan’s stage play of the same name, which portrays the young chat-show host David Frost’s international journalistic coup, scored with his interview with the fallen president Richard Nixon.
Midway through the fortnight was W, Oliver Stone’s eagerly awaited portrait of another president, the outgoing George Bush, and a fascinating portrait it was too. Anyone hoping Stone would be highly critical of President Bush might be disappointed, or at least surprised, to see Josh Brolin’s W come across as an ignorant innocent – the oil-grabbing empire-building is placed in the hands of Richard Dreyfuss’ scheming Dick Cheney, while W is a loveable oaf, with a slightly exaggerated sense of his own self-importance. It’s another one of those films where pretty much everyone in the cast is doing little more than an impression of the real-life political figures they’re portraying but across the board, the impressions are impressive.
In a biography-heavy festival, Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands) also drew in the crowds.
These films both featured prominently at Cannes, as did another similarly politically controversial film; Waltz with Bashir was Ari Folman’s animated recollections or lack of them of his time in the Israeli army during the war in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The horrors of war contrast effectively with the beautiful animation and lively score.
As a festival that picks from the best of the rest, another interesting borrowing from Cannes was Atom Egoyan’s Adoration described by the director as a coming of age film in the time of the internet. In the film, a high school student takes a story about a pregnant woman who was tricked into carrying a bomb onto a flight to Israel and pretends the woman was his own mother. Egoyan says the film illustrates the sense that history is a negotiation between with opposing needs.
Cannes Palme D’Or winner, The Class, also got an outing, as did the latest from a previous winner, Lorna’s Silence, from the Dardennes Brothers.
The festival had its fair share of dramas such as Joaquin Phoenix’s inability to have a proper relationship with either of his Two Lovers and Anna Hathaway’s recovering addict in Rachel Getting Married.
Documentaries, or at least non-fiction, also featured Larry Charles’ Religulous taking a wry look at the world’s biggest religions and, as the name suggests, arguing that some might see them as ridiculous preaching to the converted, this one.
There were some lighter narrative films too, such as Dean Spanley (Sam Neill’s remarkable performance as a vicar who believes he might have been a dog in a previous life) and Marc Fitoussi’s La Vie D’Artistes, a French film that follows a frustrated novelist, a struggling actress and a budding singer in their attempts to make it in their chosen fields. ‘People with nothing to do with art find it funny,’ he notes, ‘but people who do, find it painful.’
Colin Firth made a couple of appearances, in Michael Winterbottom’s Genova and Stephan Elliot’s Easy Virtue for whose gala screening, he graced the red carpet with co-stars Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes.
Oscar-winning writer Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, NY (Si-NEK-do-kee, apparently) was originally conceived as a horror, to be directed by his former collaborator Spike Jonze. Five years later, a surreal film about a theatre director who stages a life-size biography of his own life makes its appearance at the festival.
Another favourite at the London Film Festival is the annual ‘Surprise Film’. This year, ticket holders wouldn’t have been disappointed to see a tremendous comeback performance from Mickey Rourke as The Wrestler.
But the festival also provides a platform for short-film makers, with more than a hundred on show including nine in a Film London showcase. The best, without question, were Bevan Walsh’s journey of sexual awakening in Love Does Grow on Trees, the big-budget BBC-backed The Rain Horse, by Sebastian Godwin, and Paola Desiderio’s Rollin’ On, a visually exciting documentary with a powerful message, about how skate-boarding has shown disaffected youths a path back from crime to community. All three of them, directors who are sure to have features screening at the London Film Festival in the future.
A version of this article previously appeared on our sister site, ukscreen.com.