Talk about escapism — you get off the capital’s mean streets and into a cinema only to find the film you’re watching is set in… the capital’s mean streets. But our photogenic city always looks arresting on the big screen and even when you think you know it, a poetic lens can transform the place completely. Step forward then the London-centric movies at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. It’s an eclectic bunch ranging from period dramas to twisted sci-fi, boundary-pushing documentaries to off-the-wall shorts. Here’s our pick.
City On Fire: Homegrown Movies At BFI London Film Festival
A strong choice for opening film, Suffragette has been a labour of love for the all-female team who came together to make Brick Lane in 2007. Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan have worked with producers Faye Ward and Alison Owen to create an “unprettified” historical epic eschewing the obvious biopic route in favour of seeing the struggle for women’s rights from the point of view of a footsoldier played by Carey Mulligan. Filmed largely in London, Suffragette is also notable as the first film allowed to shoot inside the Houses of Parliament (and appropriately perhaps the scenes they shot there depict a riot). Alongside the movie, there’s also an event titled Make More Noise! Suffragettes In Film which features 21 archive films, from dramas to newsreels, showing the protestors in the early 1900s using the emerging medium of cinema to get their message out.
There’s more rioting referenced in The Hard Stop, a documentary that examines the effects of the death of Mark Duggan who was shot by police in 2011. Less concerned with the explosion of anger that saw shops burned and looted, director George Amponsah films Dugan’s family and friends on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham as they try to get on with life in the aftermath.
Class war gets a surreal, sci-fi twist in Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel High Rise about a futuristic tower block community going seriously Lord of the Flies. It starts with Tom Hiddlestone eating a barbecued dog then gets messier from there. Cult maestro Nicolas Roeg was long attached to turning this difficult dystopian story into a film, and though Wheatley’s taken over, his tendency to make films that take very weird left turns means this one still has the advantage of utter unpredictability on its side.
Expect more shock and sensation in Chemsex, an uncompromising examination of the trend among some extreme members of London’s gay community, namely for sex parties fuelled by drugs including crystal meth and mephedrone. The film includes candid accounts from so-called ‘slammers’ who are part of the scene, as well as sexual health workers who highlight the risks.
Need something more sedate after that? Try Maggie Smith in The Lady In The Van. Nicholas Hytner directs this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s characteristically wry account of the destitute woman who set up camp at the bottom of his driveway then stayed for 15 years.
There are also a good few London-bred legends fronting major award-tipped films set a tad beyond the capital. In Beasts Of No Nation, Idris Elba returns to Africa (having played Nelson Mandela recently), this time taking on the contrasting role of The Commandant, a warlord who brainwashes children into joining his rogue militia. There’s Michael Caine playing a retired composer in the Swiss-set comedy-drama Youth with Rotherhithe’s Maurice Micklewhite already being nudged forward for the big awards for his performance. Dulwich-born Tim Roth is also said to excel in Chronic in which he plays a carer looking after terminally ill patients as he deals with a troubled personal life. Meanwhile Londoners Ben Whishaw and Rachel Weisz pop up in The Lobster, a film about reincarnation tha is garnering good word-of-mouth.
At the other end of the celebrity scale, you can watch Russell Brand pratting about in a documentary about his stand-up titled, rather ominously, Brand: A Second Coming. Hopefully it will explain why Brand thinks he’ll stop existing if he doesn’t get publicity every three seconds.
There are a couple of unmissable London-set docs for music-lovers. Public House tells the fascinating story of Nunhead’s Ivy House pub, a building that almost fell into the hands of blasé developers but instead became an exemplar of how a community can run exactly the type of drinking hole that helps locals come together; the intriguing twist here is that the story is told as an opera. Then there’s Elephant Days which combines music and London life as it charts the recording of an album by the Maccabees while weaving in the stories of the regular folk living around their studio in Elephant and Castle.
Louis Theroux takes aim at Scientology in a documentary apparently too big for TV. Unlike his previous programmes, he here uses actors to recreate scenes — then things get strange when he finds out that his subject is also filming him. Hopefully he manages to keep a cooler head than Panorama’s John Sweeney — especially when Tom Cruise and John Travolta picket the screening.
Elstree 1976 is a fun-sounding portrait of the Londoners who found themselves swept up in the making of a mysterious Hollywood sci-fi film in the capital’s north-western suburbs back in the late 70s. The film? It was called Star Wars.
Also worth a bit of local love are Brixton-based director Biyi Bandele with his second film Fifty (following on from Half Of A Yellow Sun), about four women coming to terms with life and love in Lagos; and also Esther May Campbell who contemplates a fragmented family in Light Years.
Also behind the camera is honorary Londoner Danny Boyle (well he did do the Olympics) who gives us one of the festival’s big events: an intriguing portrait of Apple’s late mastermind Steve Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender).
Short Films and Experimenta
As usual there are several strong programmes of short films, chief among them the ever-impressive London Calling with this year’s stand-out work already named as Rainbow Party (about teenage peer pressure), Balcony (love and racial tension) and Big Dog (in which a parolee falls for a put-upon pooch).
London-made shorts also pop up in other strands with Crack (about the addictive power of conkers), Lord & Lidl (supermarkets and God), Over (depicting a crime scene from an unusual perspective), Midnight Of My Life (all about fading fame, starring Martin Freeman), Elephant (directed by comedian Nick Helm) and Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under (about the Thin White Duke’s little-known trip to Oz). There’s also the very powerful Samuel-613, which we’ve already featured on Londonist — though it will no doubt be even better seen on the big screen.
There’s some artful experimentation too — with Beatrice Gibson's Crippled Symmetries satirising ideas of identity and society; and Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey's Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD which will be part of a special event including some of the artist’s other work.
Last Updated 04 October 2015