There are 18 world premieres at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, which is running for the next 12 days. They include “Testament Of Youth,” a David Heyman-produced adaptation of Vera Brittain’s World War II memoir starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington; “The Falling,” set in an English girls school in 1969 rife with seething hormones and turbulent emotions — the second narrative feature from British writer-director Carol Morley, whose quasi-documentary “Dreams Of A Life” was one of the most striking British films of 2012; and “Hockney,” Randall Wright’s documentary portrait of the English artist.
Joining Morley as a distinctive new British female filmmaking voice is Corinna McFarlane, whose full-blooded romantic drama “The Silent Storm” will also premiere at the BFI LFF. Executive produced by Bond-maker Barbara Broccoli and starring Damian Lewis as a wrathful minister on a remote, pre-World War II Scottish island, Andrea Riseborough as his enigmatic wife and newcomer Ross Anderson as the young delinquent who comes between them, “The Silent Storm” is sweeping in both its emotional framework and beautifully lensed wild landscapes, documenting the battle between repressive patriarchy and female independence.
McFarlane, who, like Morley, has an acclaimed documentary on her resume (2006’s “Three Miles North Of Molkom,”which she co-directed), shot “The Silent Storm” last year on the western Scottish island of Mull, having spent nine months roaming Scotland in a Land Rover as she came up with the story and wrote the script. Her producing partner Nicky Bentham, who served as a co-producer on Duncan Jones’ “Moon,” had previously been paired with Broccoli on a UK industry mentoring scheme called Guiding Lights, and the pair sent the script to the 007-franchise producer. When Broccoli agreed to come on board after production had wrapped on “Skyfall,” it was full steam ahead.
“Barbara was excited about getting more involved in independent film and new voices,” Bentham told me when I visited the Mull set. “She said she’d help us do whatever it took to make it happen.” Broccoli was on set for almost the entire production over the summer of 2013 and mucked in with everything, down to collecting me from Mull’s ferry port and chauffeuring me to the location. It’s not every day that you get to say “Barbara Broccoli was my driver.”
“The Silent Storm” will premiere at the BFI LFF on October 14th. Here is my conversation with McFarlane on her film’s themes, casting Damian and Andrea and how it felt to have Broccoli as her celluloid godmother.
How would you describe the story?
It’s set on a remote isle of Scotland in the 1950s. It’s a mining island and the mine is shutting down so the island is being abandoned. The minister of the island is defiant and insists he will stay behind, meaning his wife also has to stay behind. She’s a woman who washed up on the shores and was delivered by the fisherwoman to the minister; she was seen as an omen, a gift from God sent to be his wife. The film explores their strange marriage and in the middle of the island’s abandonment, a stranger comes to town: an orphan boy from Glasgow.
What were your inspirations?
I wanted to tell a strong and simple story that played out on an epic scale. I was inspired by films like “The Piano” and “Breaking The Waves.” I see the film as a strange Western — a woman’s Scottish take on a Western.
You spent months driving around Scotland while you wrote the script.
My dad was orphaned as a boy so I never knew much about my Scottish ancestry. He got very ill — although he got better, thankfully — and in that process, I felt this calling to discover more about my father’s homeland. So I bought an old Land Rover, converted the back so I could sleep in it and travelled all over. The film is what came out of that journey.
How would you describe your film’s two lead characters?
Balor is a minister whose world is being uprooted. He has a traditionally male concept of godliness, which is structure and order, whereas Aislin is the weird woman, the Mary Magdalen, the misunderstood woman of nature for whom God is in mother nature; she has a more pagan view.
Which, of course, means she is demonized by her religious community.
A big theme in the film is judgment. The reason I’ve given her no back story, had her come from nothing so to speak, is because woman are always judged: are you married? Do you have children? People feel they need to put women in a context whereas men don’t suffer that as much. When Aislin first washed up on the shores, she was seen as a gift from God. But when she turns out not to be what they said she was, they demonize her.
Damian Lewis brings a feverish intensity to the role of Balor.
We didn’t think we were going to get him because of his “Homeland” schedule. By chance we heard he might have an opening so I asked Barbara if she could find a way of getting him the script. He loved it and we managed to negotiate a four-week window.
What about Andrea? She really strikes a chord as the free-spirited Aislin.
Andrea’s immense. I wanted an intelligent woman to portray a femininity that was not commodified. The whole film is about the fundamental truth of nature so it was important to find someone who had integrity as a person and as an actress.
Was Barbara a supporter from early on?
Yes, for just over a year before we started shooting. She’s been amazing. When Nicky first got a script to her, we didn’t hear anything for three months. We knew she was about to start shooting “Skyfall” and literally the night before that started, Nicky got a call saying, “I’m in!” It’s so important to have a female championing us. It happens all the time with guys who have big hotshot producers backing them, so it’s nice that it happens with women too. Barbara loves filmmaking and wants to get good stuff made.
What did her involvement mean?
She said, “We’re going to get this movie made” but she didn’t hand it to us on a plate. She could have financed it all herself but she didn’t want to go that route. It was about supporting us so that we could do it ourselves. We pitched our socks off and every penny has come from pure hard work.