The organisers of the London Film Festival say this year’s event had an outstanding British presence – including the opening and closing night galas.
The festival got off to a glittering start with Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go – adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel – with Oscar nominees Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley joined on the red carpet by one of the brightest rising stars of British cinema, Andrew Garfield.
Two weeks later, Danny Boyle brought the festival to a close for the second time in three years – this time with 127 Hours, starring James Franco as Aron Ralston, an all-round adventurer who gets rather more than he bargained for when he gets stuck under a boulder in the Utah desert.
In between were nearly two hundred features, with ticket sales in excess of one hundred and thirty two thousand – the highest ever attendance figures.
Other highlights of the 54th BFI London Film Festival included Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth’s King George VI gets help in overcoming his stammer from Geoffrey Rush’s eccentric speech therapist. After the director and stars expressed their bemusement at the film’s 15 certificate at a morning press conference, the BBFC reconsidered and awarded the film a 12A certificate instead by the time the film was premiered that same evening.
Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassell in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet drama Black Swan were well received, as was Mike Leigh’s latest intimate exploration of human relations in Another Year – Lesley Manville’s being a particularly stand-out performance.
A number of films that have swept up awards at earlier festivals featured prominently here too – such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Of Gods And Men from Cannes, Peter Mullan’s Neds, which won at San Sebastian and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, the winner from Venice, in which Stephen Dorff plays a burnt-out Hollywood star, whose performance might be better understood by industry insiders than members of the viewing public.
Olivier Assayas’ Carlos the Jackal biopic was excluded from competition in Cannes because of its TV origins, but that didn’t stop the LFF screening it in all its glory.
Two of the more uplifting and entertaining films of the festival have already been released theatrically in the UK and are worth seeking out – Debs Gardner-Paterson’s debut Africa United follows a group of Rwandan children as they make their way to the World Cup in South Africa and Lisa Cholodenko’s extended family drama The Kids Are All Right, which presented the festival with some of its strongest performances.
Although Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo graced the red carpet, there were fewer big names and faces in attendance than in previous years which made the festival feel a little smaller. There was a George Clooney film – The American – but he wasn’t here to promote it. Another big star with a film in the festival, Will Ferrell, also failed to make a personal appearance, although his uncharacteristically downbeat performance as a door-to-door salesman who loses his job and his wife on the same day makes Everything Must Go a curiosity worth checking out when it hits the big screens here more widely.
Other films that took a bow in Leicester Square are Brian Welsh’s debut, the upcoming British drama In Our Name, about the difficulty a returning British soldier has in fitting back into her Middlesborough community following a tour in Iraq.
Richard Ayoade – better known to most as a comic actor from the IT Crowd – had his first feature film Submarine premiered, but his PR team refused to do any press for the festival, waiting to set him loose on the press when the film is released in the Spring. All he would say when he arrived for the awards ceremony was that his two nominations were probably down to a clerical error and he hoped the result of the awards ceremony would be to make his career go worse. He is, remember, a comedian at heart.
Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, about the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, not only pleased the critics but also earned her two prizes at the LFF’s second annual Awards night – the Best British Newcomer, in which she fought off competition from Ayoade and Welsh among others – and the Sutherland Award, for first features.
With a range of honourable high profile films up for the festivals Star of London award for Best Film, the surprise winner was Russia’s How I Ended This Summer, which, while preserving the integrity of the jury system, won’t do the festival any favours on the international stage when it comes to raising its profile as a venue to launch Oscar contenders.
The actress Patricia Clarkson, who chaired the jury, said the film had elemental themes of isolation and alienation — and was a visceral psychological drama.
Sad as it is to acknowledge, if no-one has heard of the winner, no-one will talk about the winner, so fewer people will talk about the festival and certainly, by the time the Awards season reaches its climax and such films as The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech are almost certain to be on everyone’s lips, the Star of London will not be.
The only film-maker honoured on the night whose name will truly reverberate around the industry was a man who had already been honoured by being allowed to close the festival for a second time – Danny Boyle was made a fellow of the BFI.
In addition to the feature films, the LFF also showcased more than 100 short films. If you’re wondering how to get a short into the festival, two pieces of advice could be (1) cast famous people and (2) be famous yourself. In one shorts programme alone, one film featured Helen Baxendale, another starred Richard E Grant, Warren Clark and Celia Imrie and another, called Steve, starred Colin Firth and Keira Knightley – both friends of the director, Rupert Friend.
And like many other festivals, the LFF isn’t just about the films, but the film-makers themselves, offering many opportunities for the press and even the public to meet and hear from directors, actors, writers and producers. There were masterclasses from directors including Olivier Assayas, Lisa Cholodenko, Peter Mullan and Alejandro González Iñárritu (screening Biutiful).
Another highlight for those who prefer the people to the pictures was Ken Loach’s Keynote Address to the festival, at which he stridently attacked TV executives for squashing creativity and urged anyone working in the industry to join the union. But, to his credit, when a Bectu official hijacked the question-and-answer session and tried to turn it into a union membership drive, Loach failed to support the argument that it is always illegal to work without pay. When one young film-maker made it clear that he could not have made his first short if he had had to pay his cast and crew, Loach acknowledged that collaborations are acceptable – just not rip-offs.