The organisers of the London Film Festival say a record 124,000 people attended screenings at this year’s event, which drew to a close with the world premiere of Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy. The figure was 8% up on last year. Of nearly two hundred feature films being shown over the sixteen day event, fifteen of them had never been seen by a public audience before.
There are few better ways of enjoying cinema than a film festival, where directors and actors turn up to introduce their work and take questions from the audiences at the end. Moving across Leicester Square from the Odeon West End to the Vue gave the the organisers more screens and enabled them to run concurrent screenings of some of the bigger films – and some of the film-makers managed to treat both audiences to personal appearances.
Britain’s biggest film festival opened with Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr Fox, with George Clooney voicing the title character. This was one of three films featuring Clooney during the first half of the festival. The star delighted the crowds at Leicester Square as he arrived for the opening film and the screenings of The Men Who Stare At Goats and Up In The Air.
With nearly two hundred films from forty six countries on show, it’s not surprising that Clooney wasn’t the only actor to appear in more than one. Kristin Scott Thomas, who played John Lennon’s aunt in Nowhere Boy, also starred as an adulterous woman in the French film Leaving. Her betrayed husband is played by Yvan Attal, who also turns up as an adulterous husband in Cédric Kahn’s Regrets. Adultery turns up in yet another film, as Julianne Moore plays Liam Neeson’s jealous wife in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, as well as being the Colin Firth’s best friend in the designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man. John Hurt also made several appearances – in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control and Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest – as well as turning up at the festival’s inaugural awards ceremony to accept a fellowship to the BFI.
Leaving and Regrets were among a typically large programme of French films in the festival – some, including Regrets and Jean-Pierre Jeanet’s MICMACS, being far stronger than others – such as Leaving, Persecution starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and the charming but insignificant Around a Small Mountain, starring her mother, Jane Birkin.
There was a particularly strong British contingent at this year’s festival. Perhaps the most high profile, An Education, was actually directed by a Dane, Lone Scherfig. But set in early 1960s London, written by novelist Nick Hornby and with a scene stealing performance from newcomer Carey Mulligan, alongside strong support from Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike and Peter Sarsgaard (an American with a convincing English accent), it feels about as British as you can get. The education in question is Mulligan’s schoolgirl’s realisation that perhaps giving up her studies for the prospect of a relaxing and cultured life with a wealthy older man isn’t the best decision. Another established foreign director, Jane Campion, delivered a tremendously British project in Bright Star, about the life of the poet John Keats. Colin Firth’s starring role as a bereaved gay man in A Single Man is supported by Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult, both playing American. One of the British highlights of the festival was Stephen Poliakoff’s powerful Glorious 39, in which Romola Garai’s heroine uncovers a violent and ruthless conspiracy to appease Hitler in the run-up to the Second World War, with strong support from Bill Nighy, Hugh Bonneville, David Tennant and Juno Temple – of whom more later.
And at the other end of the spectrum, a number of first-time British film-makers showed their low-budget debuts at the festival. Lindy Heymann’s assured direction of Leigh Campbell’s warm-hearted Liverpool-set coming-of-age inadvertent kidnap script, Kicks, is one of the low budget highlights. Kidnapping is also the theme of J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Joining those three among the nominees for the Best British Newcomer was Sir Ridley Scott’s daughter Jordan, whose Cracks features Eva Green as a teacher at a remote girls’ school where Juno Temple returns as the teacher’s pet-cum-school bully who makes life hell for a new Spanish classmate. The prize was won by Jack Thorne, whose screenplay for The Scouting Book for Boys, was directed by fellow nominee Tom Harper. The film sets off as a coming of age film about a teenaged boy (Thomas Turgoose) who’s in love a girl (Holliday Grainger) who just sees him as her best friend. And once again, a kidnapping element creeps in.
The London Film Festival prides itself on being the roundup of the best films from other festivals during the year, as well as presenting premieres. So the nominees for the first ever Star of London Best Film prize included two of the most successful films from Cannes – Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning The White Ribbon, which lost out to Jacques Audiard’s French prison drama A Prophet here. Other nominees included Balibo – Australian actor Anthony la Paglia’s passion project about Australian journalists killed by Indonesian troops as they invaded the newly independent East Timor – and the Coen Brother’s latest comedy, A Serious Man – you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it, but it helps!
Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, which won the Golden Lion at Venice was in the running for the Sutherland Trophy for the best first film. He lost out to another film from Israel, Ajami, which was co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian. The Grierson Prize for documentaries also went to an Israeli film, Yoav Shamir’s Defamation, which investigates anti-semitism.
Animation had an unusually high profile at this year’s festival, opening the event for the first time, in the shape of Roald Dahl’s Mr Fox and friends. The photorealist Swedish Metropia provided some thoughtful moments as it considered a near future under the gaze of the CCTV cameras. And other directors blended live-action with animation to varying extents, such as The Mighty Boosh director Paul King’s Bunny And The Bull and Czech director Maria Procházková’s Who’s Afraid of the Wolf?
Other festival favourites, such as Steven Soderbergh, John Hillcoat and Ang Lee returned to London to showcase their latest films, while actors including Clive Owen met audiences for on-stage interviews.
Too many films, directors, writers and actors to mention graced cinema screens around Leicester Square and on the South Bank for the sixteen day event, which the festival’s artistic director Sandra Hebron described as “a particularly enjoyable and successful festival.”