London is always a joy to visit but, now more than ever, one discovers a city infused with energy. The sunny autumn days that bathe the Southbank streets could well be the afterglow of the success of the Olympic Games, but now the stars are rolling into town for the 56th BFI London Film Festival to dazzle with exciting projects of all shapes and sizes. The annual October-fest may not be regarded as the equal of Cannes or Venice, but considering how many good films and filmmakers it attracts, it’s more than capable of standing alongside them. Indeed, before this writer arrived, the festival had already played host to the gala premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, Michael Haneke and his paean to the ravages of age Amour, and Beyond The Hills, Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to the acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That was just for starters; what treats would the next few days hold?
One of the big screenings of the first few days was Rust and Bone, the new film from acclaimed director Jacques Audiard. The Saturday night premiere was attended by the director and his leading lady, Marion Cotillard. As a film star, Cotillard occupies the same realm as Sophia Loren – nominally exotic, stunningly beautiful and more than capable of commanding the screen. In Rust and Bone Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a whale trainer at a marine park whose lower legs are amputated after an accident with an orca. Detailing her new and tumultuous relationship with a bouncer-cum-bare-knuckle boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts), it’s an affecting examination of the fight against victimhood. To be sure, it’s miserable but it’s also ably directed, and Cotillard and Schoenaerts are dynamite. The harrowed face of the newly-disabled Stéphanie is a world away from the intimidatingly pretty Cotillard, who gave a public interview with Independent critic Jonathan Romney on Sunday. The conversation revealed a woman who, despite hard work and obvious talent, is modest and realistic about herself, though this impression may be due to her slightly broken English than a faked modesty; she’s proud of her work and the effort that goes into it. She also revealed a great trust in instinct in her performances, and proclaimed her massive love of Will Ferrell! It’s safe to say no-one in the auditorium expected that.
Sunday evening saw the the presentation of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God. The latest documentary from acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), Mea Maxima Culpa details how a report of serial sexual abuse in a school for deaf boys in rural Wisconsin in 1974 began the process of unearthing abuse by Catholic clergy. The documentary goes on to examine how the abuse was revealed across the globe, including extensive examination of the Irish experience. The eventual revelation of Vatican collaboration into covering up the abuse is a given, but seeing their silence married to the suffering of the victims and their honest, open testimonies makes Mea Maxima Culpa a sobering and powerful experience. A Q&A session with Gibney afterwards enriched the experience with his personal insights on the film and the material covered, not least because Gibney was raised Catholic.
The crowds braved the bitter cold in Leicester Square on Monday evening for the premiere of Quartet, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. Whatever the delay in finally turning to directing, Hoffman managed to assemble a fine cast, including Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Dame Maggie Smith. Their press conference revealed an easy-going and chummy cast, all of whom playfully mocked their director’s whims and wishes, though none was more self-deprecating than Hoffman himself. That chumminess extends to the film; Quartet’s tale of a retirement home for former opera singers and musicians is a warm and witty little flick, but it’s also pretty toothless and unchallenging. It’s perfect fodder for you and your granny at a Sunday matinée.
The same autograph hunters and keen punters returned on Tuesday for the Mayor of London’s Centrepiece Gala at the Empire Leicester Square. The regular autograph hounds, both collectors and acquiring for sale, brandished copies of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day as Bill Murray came to town to introduce Hyde Park On Hudson, a retelling of the tumultuous weekend in 1938 when King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) became the first British royalty to visit the United States, calling on president Franklin D. Roosevelt (Murray) at his country home. Murray’s loose beige suit matched the free and easy personality for which he’s known and loved (His opening line was ‘My apologies: I do not speak your language’). He was joined by his co-star West and director Roger Michell, who expressed his pride at returning to his hometown with his film and stars in tow. What a pity, then, that Hyde Park On Hudson is such a forced and awkward film, unsure what to do with its various subplots, its lead characters (the film focuses on FDR and close relationship with his cousin, played by Laura Linney) or its tone. A disappointment, though not enough to dampen the spirits of the folks in the auditorium, dazzled as they were by the presence of a genuine star.
Yet premieres and schedules wait for no stars. No sooner had Hyde Park On Hudson ended but the Empire’s red carpet was being trampled again. A Liar’s Autobiography is the animated and somewhat heightened retelling of the life of Monty Python’s nominal leading man Graham Chapman, and the European premiere of the film brought out a bit of Python in everyone. Fans quoted lines to one another, whilst actors playing King Arthur and Brian (He’s not the Messiah!) traipsed up and down the red carpet. The arrival of Chapman’s fellow Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin set cameras flashing and the autograph-hungry yelling. Introducing the film Palin, Jones and the film’s directors were keen for a laugh but their primary objective was to make something that captured and honoured the late Chapman, and A Liar’s Autobiography delivers. Irreverent, risqué and sometimes all-out camp, it balances great laughs with some bracing honesty about Chapman’s insecurity, homsexuality and alcoholism. To ensure the film lodged in the memory, the London Gay Men’s Choir led the crowd in an enthusiastic rendition of the film’s central musical number, a ditzy ditty entitled ‘Sit On My Face’. Chapman would have doubtlessly approved.