Drinking & Diversifying; The Bountiful Parties & Comprehensive Programming of the 47th London Film Festival
by Leslie Felperin
Stretching out over 16 days (October 22 – November 6), encompassing more than 300 films from 45 countries, The Times bfi 47th London Film Festival must surely rate as one of the roomiest, most diverse, and most comprehensive public festivals in the world. It may not have the extra market buzz of Toronto or show heavy-duty premieres in the same league as Berlin, Cannes, or Venice’s fests — which, crucial difference, run major competitions — but there’s more than enough pukka (as they say in South London) product to keep the punters and critics happy.
Artistic director Sandra Hebron, a seemingly ubiquitous, ever-smiling figure during the festival, is now in her second term of office after serving as previous-director Adrian Wootton’s deputy for years. Having learned from predecessors’ mistakes and endowed with excellent taste, Hebron has proved an extremely adept programmer, assembling with her extensive team a well-balanced line-up of gala screenings offering red-carpet action and more recherché discoveries from all over the world. Plus she’s bold, plumping for two challenging films, coincidentally both by female New Zealand-born directors, for her opening and closing night: Jane Campion’s “In the Cut” and Christine Jeffs’ “Sylvia” respectively.
Just as it did in Toronto, “In the Cut” received a decidedly mixed reception among the local critics who quibbled over its handling of genre but swooned for its stunning cinematography. On screen, star Meg Ryan bared all, but outside before the premiere the tabloid paparazzi barely glimpsed her as she swooped in and out of the cinema. I’m told she was somewhere at the opening night party, along with director Campion and co-star Mark Ruffalo, held in London’s new Saatchi Gallery of modern art, but it was hard to spot anyone if you were looking for them among the gallery’s maze of corridors. Much better to wait for them to come to you on the smoking terrace, where most of the British film industry passed through eventually. Also somewhere at the bash were British Film Institute chairman Anthony Minghella (the bfi is the LFF’s parent organization); directors Alan Parker, Stephen Frears, Nicolas Roeg, and Terry Jones; actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Miranda Richardson; and composer and one-time Campion collaborator Michael Nyman.
Closing night played out much the same way, with thumbs up and down for “Sylvia,” this viewer finding it much better than expected if a little lacking in visual poetry given that it chronicles Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ relationship. Valentino-clad star Gwyneth Paltrow looked a little mismatched with her scruffily-dressed boyfriend, Chris Martin of Coldplay, but she graciously gushed about her enthusiasm for the U.K. Other wattage was provided by Paltrow’s co-star Daniel Craig with his girlfriend Heike Makatsch (who can be seen in “Love Actually”), plus Jake Gyllenhaal (spotted again, this time with his main squeeze Kirsten Dunst), and Anne Reid, fifty-something plus star of “The Mother.” Post-screening, everyone proceeded to get very drunk at posh eatery Mezzo, a condition aggravated by the chronic lack of hors d’oeuvres, a recurrent complaint about LFF’s closing bashes since time began.
There was plenty of heavy drinking in between those event bookends, with a massive piss-up with the Danes, celebrating having a record six films in the festival — Cannes Camera D’or winner “Reconstruction,” “Inheritance,” “It’s All About Love,” “Someone Like Hodder,” “Dogville,” and “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” — and just being Danish. The “Lost in Translation” party was a similarly tipsy if better catered affair at a Japanese restaurant, with star Scarlett Johansson mixing serenely amongst the mortals while Sofia Coppola stayed nearly out of sight. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, in the U.K. filming the latest Harry Potter flick, threw his arms with a Latin lack of embarrassment around fellow countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu at the “21 Grams” bash while “Grams” star Naomi Watts looked on happily. At the do for “The Dreamers,” star Michael Pitt showed up at last, having blown off all his press interviews that morning due to feeling indisposed in an unspecified manner.
I’m giving you the low-down on the parties because — to be honest — having seen almost all the big-name movies already at other festivals, that’s what the London Film Festival was for me. That and doing interviews onstage with passing-through talent, including some of the aforementioned plus Peter Dinklage, diminutive but surprisingly sexy star of “The Station Agent” and the film’s articulate director Thomas McCarthy, as well as Canadian director Denys Arcand who proved a rather prickly customer. When asked to describe his latest work, “The Barbarian Invasions,” for the benefit of those who hadn’t seen it, Arcand flatly refused, saying it would take him the same amount of time as the length of the film.
Other duties compelled me to shun a party or two in order to see at least some movies, particularly premieres for two British films, David Caffrey’s breezy road movie “Grand Theft Parsons,” about the bizarre fate of martyred musician Gram Parsons’ corpse — it stars Johnny Knoxville in his first dramatic role, and the he more patchy but still plucky “The Trouble With Men and Women,” directed by Tony Fisher. But the most compelling new British film, for me, was “Touching the Void,” documentary-maker Kevin Macdonald’s gripping docudrama recreation of the mountain-climbing ordeal faced by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates when they got out of their depth during an expedition to the Andes in 1985.
Moreover, I was on the jury for the Sutherland Trophy, a prize to the best feature by a first-time director. The 12 films in this competition were very different and very distinctive in their own ways. Naturally, I can’t breathe (or write) a word about the jury’s deliberations without the risk of having my legs broken by festival artistic director Hebron, but I can reveal that the very worthy winner was Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama,” the first film to emerge from post-Taliban Afghanistan, a Cannes favorite about a girl who must disguise herself as a boy to feed her starving family when the Taliban come to power.
Some of the other films competing for the Sutherland included the audacious Hungarian digital film “Forest,” by Benedek Fliegauf, Alain Guiraudie’s wacky French absurdist drama “No Rest for the Brave,” and Austrian director Ruth Mader’s austere “Struggle,” a tale of immigrants between borders and countries. But of course, all 12 were winners in their own way.
Had I seen it in London instead of at another festival in Cottbus, Germany, a week later, Alexei Uchitel’s “The Stroll” from Russia would have been one of the highlights of the London Film Festival for me. It’s eminently remake-able story tracks a guy (Josh Harnett-lookalike Pavel Barshak) and a girl (Irina Pegova) who meet on the streets of St. Petersburg and over the course of their walk fall in love, though his friend (Yevgeny Tsyganov) makes a play for the lady too. It’s a simple enough idea, but the consummate handheld digital cinematography bursts with life while the performances are relentlessly engaging.
Hopefully, some Londoners enjoyed it for themselves. Clearly, the crowds really took to the festival this year, with attendance up by six percent from last year and more than 123 of the LFF’s 350 screenings being sold out.