London film festival: privilege and poverty collide in big British cinema showcase

When the 67th London film festival opens on 4 October, it will be with the international premiere of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, featuring an all-star cast including Barry Keoghan, Carey Mulligan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant. The “tale of privilege and desire” is the second feature from the Promising Young Woman director and follows an un-monied Oxford University student who becomes drawn into the beautiful and sophisticated world of a charming aristocrat.

With its nods to writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Alan Hollinghurst, and its shots of sprawling country estates, Saltburn is a quintessentially British film. And its prominent inclusion in the festival programme highlights what festival officials say is a significant year for British cinema.

“If you only saw the films from the UK at the festival this year, you would be really spoilt for choice,” LFF director Kristy Matheson said.

“There’s such a variety of film-making, across many different genres. We’re really keen that the festival showcases the breadth and texture of UK cinema.”

Also on the programme is the world premiere of Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares’s directorial debut’s, The Kitchen, which will be closing the festival. Like Saltburn, the dystopian drama – written by Kaluuya and Joe Murtagh – focuses on the social politics of class and the gap between rich and poor. Set in a near-future London where the poor are forced to live in outlying slums, the film follows Izi (played by Top Boy’s Kane “Kano” Robinson) who is trying to find a way out of the capital’s last remaining social housing building.

“Saltburn and Kitchen are very different films, but what links them is they’re both very ambitious,” Matheson said. “The storylines are remarkable.

“Then we’ve got Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, which is one of the most moving cinema experiences I’ve had in a really long time. Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is really extraordinary – when it premiered earlier this year, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that didn’t think it was an instant classic.

“It’s wonderful to have Michael Winterbottom’s new feature film, Shoshana, and the premiere of Julia Jackman’s Bonus Track, which is a gorgeous coming-of-age romcom. And then there’s an insanely great crop of first-time British directors.”

Matheson, who took over at the helm of LFF from Tricia Tuttle this year, said the festival has continued to grow in stature and popularity.

Last year, it saw audiences properly return following two years of Covid-induced restrictions, and even exceeded expectations – with screening attendance growing from 83% in 2019 to 87% in 2022. “This year we’re also seeing a very strong reaction to the programme,” Matheson said. “It feels really wonderful to know that people want to come back to the cinema.”

In total, this year’s edition is made up of 252 titles, including 167 feature films – 20 of which are world premieres, such as Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence, and Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget by the award-winning British stop-motion giant Aardman Studios. European premieres include James Hawes’s One Life, starring Anthony Hopkins, and Lulu Wang’s Expats, starring Nicole Kidman.

The red carpet will also be rolled out for additional galas of some of the biggest and buzziest hits of the festival circuit, such as Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, David Fincher’s The Killer and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. But with the Hollywood actors’ strike ongoing, there will be fewer stars present on the South Bank than audiences have become accustomed to.

“Luckily for us, we’d made many of our selections by the time the strike was announced, so in terms of the programme it didn’t change a lot for us,” Matheson said.

“We have quite a lot of starry directors who are going to be with us, such as Sofia Coppola and Martin Scorsese. What’s quite lovely is you don’t often get to spotlight the director, to put them front and centre. This year we’re really happy that audiences will get to have those moments.”

Scorsese is one of six directors who will take part in the festival’s “screentalks” – in-depth interviews reflecting on an artist’s life and career. Others taking part are Greta Gerwig, Andrew Haigh, Emerald Fennell, Kitty Green and Lulu Wang.

Eleven films will also compete for the best film award, which last year went to Marie Kreutzer for Corsage. They include Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist; Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel; Daniel Kokotajlo’s Starve Acre and Christos Nikou’s Fingernails.

The lineup, which has often garnered praise for its diversity compared with other festivals, includes 99 works by female and non-binary film-makers – 39% of the programme.

“We’re trying to build a programme that’s reflective of the audience we’re presenting it to,” Matheson said. “The whole world is here in London and we really want to reflect that.”

Our critic’s picks of the festival

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon. Photograph: AP

Killers of the Flower Moon
Scorsese’s true-crime western thriller portrays the 1920s mass murder of Indigenous Americans to appropriate their oil rights – starring Lily Gladstone as an Osage woman, Leonardo DiCaprio as her husband and Robert De Niro as the sinister, manipulative cattleman.

Poor Things
Emma Stone gives a glorious performance as Bella, the primitive sexual innocent abroad in Victorian London, a corpse brought back to life in a Frankensteinian experiment.

Red Island
A beautiful film from writer-director Robin Campillo – based on his own childhood growing up on a French military base in Madagascar in the early 70s.

The Zone of Interest
The banality of evil was perhaps never so brutally shown as in Jonathan Glazer’s chilling new Holocaust film, based on the Martin Amis novel, about the placidly respectable day-to-day life of the Auschwitz camp commandant and his family, quartered in a pleasant house just outside the camp walls.

The Kitchen
Daniel Kaluuya co-writes and co-directs (with Kibwe Tavares) this drama-thriller of London’s near future about a council estate called The Kitchen, with Top Boy’s Kane Robinson playing Izi, a funeral home worker who discovers a son he never knew he had..

The Holdovers
Alexander Payne, so often lauded as a new wave type auteur in the tradition of Altman or Ashby, now returns to the world of the US high school (the location of his early gem, Election). Paul Giamatti plays a tough history teacher who connects with a troubled student.

How to Have Sex
Full-on energy and thoroughly likable performances in this terrific debut feature from director Molly Manning Walker, starring Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara, a teen on a post-exam holiday in Crete, brooding about gaining some sexual experience.

Hoard
First-time feature director Luna Carmoon gives a social realist psychodrama of amour fou in this intense, macabre tale of a young woman whose dysfunctional unhappiness has its roots in her relationship with her troubled mum.

Priscilla
Here’s a smart antidote to Baz Luhrmann’s incurious Elvis extravaganza: Sofia Coppola tells the story of Elvis’s teen bride Priscilla, trapped at home at Graceland while the star was away on tour.

Saltburn
For her second feature, Emerald Fennell gives us an elegant, teasing spin on the fetishised and mythologised Englishness of Evelyn Waugh: a shy young student at Oxford is mesmerised by a charming aristocrat.

The End We Start From
Jodie Comer stars in this eco-survivalist thriller set in a postapocalyptic London: a new mother and baby flee the horror.

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World
Radu Jude’s garrulous essay-movie-comedy has already gained a certain cult status, not least for its Romanian star’s chilling impression of Romania’s most notorious expat resident: Andrew Tate. Peter Bradshaw

• The BFI London film festival takes place from 4-15 October.