November last year introduced the inaugural British Film Festival, a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale slate of nation-centric film festivals. It’s not that I don’t have a lot of respect for local festivals like the Italian, Israeli, French etc festivals – I only saw one of my favourite films of the year thanks to the latter! – but they always strike me as more rough than diamond; a collection of just-okay movies with a few truly exceptional gems hidden in the lineup. Last year’s British Film Festival then – which featured eventual Oscar-nominee Philomena alongside high-class fare such as Le Week-End, Don Hemingway and Still Life … not to mention retrospective screenings of The Third Man and Lawrence of Arabia – set itself apart from the pack in its first year.
2014 sees the Festival continue with an equally impressive lineup. The closing night film is surely the biggest draw: The Imitation Game is already solidifying as lock for Oscar nominations for both star Benedict Cumberbatch and the film itself. Cumberbatch plays renowned English mathematician Alan Turing, remembered for helping to crack the Enigma Code in World War II alongside some seminal work developing the mathematics that underpins modern computers. He’s also remembered, of course, for his victimisation at the hands of the government for his sexuality. The combination of genius and tragedy is sure to be a classy crowd-pleaser; I’m unconcerned by the accusations of historical inaccuracy (because this is true of every period film ever), but I do hope they don’t pull their punches when it comes to the awful treatment of Turing in his later years.
Opening night film Testament of Youth is another period piece, an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s First World War memoirs, and I admit I was enthusiastic after seeing its entirely generic trailer. But it’s been attracting positive earlier reviews – Wendy Ide compares it to Powell and Pressburger while Tim Robey described the film as “soberly moving” – so I’m now cautiously optimistic (even if I remain intensely sceptical of Jon Snow aka Mr Abs aka Kit Harrington as a Serious Actor). The film I’m most anticipating is Mike Leigh’s latest, Mr Turner, which is yet another period piece based in fact, chronicling the life of J. M. W. Turner. With Timothy Spall picking up the Best Actor at Cannes in the lead role and Leigh’s impressive track record, it’s a great opportunity to see the film before it’s released on Boxing Day.
Three films of this pedigree would be sufficient to get excited for the festival, but the program runs quite a bit deeper. At a glance, there’s: Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, a nineteenth century romance featuring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell; God Help the Girl, the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch; the intriguingly enigmatic Wilting, starring Ben Whishaw; and the critically-lauded ’71, a war movie setting Jack O’Connell loose in the turmoil of a fierce Belfast riot. Where many neighbouring national film festivals leave me wondering what’s worth seeing, the British Film Festival has me struggling to work out how I’ll find time for everything I want to see.
I have had the chance to see a handful of the films that will be screening at the festival beforehand; if you missed my review of the middling A Long Way Down then, to summarise: I can’t really recommend it. It’s not dire, but it coasts by on the strength of its cast and a far too many clichés. Equally disappointing is The Sea, Stephen Brown’s adaptation of John Banville’s Man Booker Prize winning novel. Like A Long Way Down, it features a formidable cast – Ciarán Hinds in the lead role is joined by Charlotte Rampling, Rufus Sewell, Bonnie Wright and Natascha McElhone – but it finds little for them to do but look mopey while gazing out onto an endless expanse of ocean.
The Sea splits its time between three timelines, telling the story of Max as a child – played by Matthew Dilone – on a seaside holiday, as an adult (Hinds) coping with his wife’s (Sinéad Cusack’s) illness, and finally returning to the location of that holiday after his wife’s death. The story’s morose musings on mortality and nascent sexuality no doubt resonate on the page, but Brown is unable to evoke the same emotionality on the screen. His film is “handsomely shot” – to borrow an oft-used backhanded compliment – but lacks the certain je ne sais quoi that would allow it to attain the Proustian affect it so desperately strives for. Instead, it’s just rather dull (and it doesn’t help that the three-story-structure delays any narrative payoff til the end). I’d stay out of the water.
Jimmy’s Hall is, thankfully, much better. It’s another period drama (the Brits certainly know what they’re good at), telling the story of a small Irish community divided in the wake of the Irish Civil War. Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns from America to his hometown and soon finds himself in conflict with the local clergy and landed gentry with his socialist views, realised in the inclusive dance hall from which the film takes its title. This is undisguised historical hagiography: all Gralton wants to do is strive for justice and free education, all the Church want to do is destroy him. “Classes of every sort,” sneers blatantly villainous Father Sheridan (Jim Norton). “Defiance, that’s what it is.”
But Jimmy’s Hall succeeds despite the flagrant one-sidedness of its storyline. Loach’s direction and Ward’s performance are chiefly responsible for this success. Loach carefully develops a sense of pastoral beauty and community closeness as the film progresses, ensuring we understand the people before getting into the politics. The choice to avoid non-diegetic music entirely means that the titular hall’s celebratory jazz brings a welcome sense of life to the film – you understand why people would fight for it. Ward, meanwhile, embodies a sense of nobility and calm leadership in both his actions and his bearing. You believe he could really inspire a community.
Before the Festival’s lineup was announced, I’d somehow never managed to see any of the six films showcased in its “Six from the 60s” selection: Billy Liar, Darling, A Hard Day’s Night, If…, The Italian Job and Zulu. I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to see one – or both – of Billy Liar or If… on the big screen, but I caught up with Darling on the small screen at home recently. It’s sort of a 1960s version of Baby Face, following a young model (Julie Christie) as she sleeps her way to success. It doesn’t have the same zip of Baby Face, nor is Christie quite on the same level as Barbara Stanwyck (though she did win an Oscar for the role, so your mileage may vary), but it’s mostly interesting as an insight into the politics of 1960s Britain.
Darling is primarily a satire, investigating the clash between the country’s traditional values and 60s bohemian ideals and exposing the shallowness of British aspiration– which, unlike the American dream, is more about moving up the class system (Christie’s character ends up a princess by the film’s end) rather than accumulating wealth. I have no doubt some of the specific references to the politics of half-a-century earlier flew over my head, but it was intriguing to see how the film approaches many of its presumably controversial subjects. Homosexuality, for example, is left largely implied (though it’s mostly treated with positivity, thankfully) and the film judges Christie’s promiscuity relatively harshly, but an early abortion is presented without moral tut-tutting (rare in cinema nowadays, give or take an Obvious Child).
The British Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, November 6 in Brisbane, with screenings at Palace Barracks and Centro. For more information on the festival – which is also making its way to Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and Byron Bay – visit the official website.